Election board fines $21.5 million, gets $1.2 million
It could have been a lot worse than $3,679 for Fred Crespo.
The Hoffman Estates Democratic state representative's campaign has been fined more than $50,000 for finance reporting infractions by the Illinois State Board of Elections since 2005. Crespo's appeals to the board resulted in nearly all of the fines being tossed out or suspended.
But that's not because he received any special treatment. In fact, Crespo paid more than the state average for fined campaigns.
"In 2006, that was my first year, and I just paid the fines because I didn't know about the appeal process," Crespo said. "I would have appealed then if I had known how to."
Plenty of others did know how. Since 1999, various politicians and political organizations have tallied nearly 13,000 campaign finance reporting violations, and the state's election board has levied more than $21.5 million in fines in response. But just $1.2 million of those fines have been paid.
That's 5.8 percent of the total fines. Crespo paid 7.3 percent of his fines.
Over the past 13 years, the average annual total amount of fines paid is $95,875, while levies average $1.7 million, according to election board data. By comparison, the amount of fines taken in each year doesn't cover the collective $332,000 yearly salary of the appointed eight-member election board.
"One of the benefits of the board of elections is keeping people honest," Crespo said. "The question is how much is that going to cost us."
Critics argue the agency's processes could be streamlined and be made more cost-effective. However, election board officials contend there should be no correlation between fines and operational costs of the board. They note that revenue generated from fines goes into the state's general fund, not the agency's coffers.
"Is it the best system? No," said Burt Odelson, a prominent local election lawyer. "You see the problem from the dollar amounts. They levied $21.5 million and got only $1.2 million? Put some more teeth in the laws. Make the candidates more personally responsible and that might make a difference."
Others call the board "soft."
State election officials said leniency is a board policy. Appeals by first-time offenders are commonly granted. The board regularly reduces the original fine to 10 percent of what it was and often lets campaigns completely off the hook if no other infractions are reported in the next two years.
Officials said these "slaps on the wrist" keep newcomers to the political process from becoming disenfranchised.
"That's your get-out-of-jail-free card, your first bite at the apple," said Rupert Borgsmiller, the state election board executive director. "In the end, you want people involved in the process, and it can have an effect on people who are willing to serve."
Borgsmiller said changes to the state's campaign finance reporting rules this year have resulted in a major uptick in fines and violations. So far in 2011, 1,949 violations have been reported. In all of 2010, there were just 809. But as in previous years, there's a major gap between how much of the fines have been collected compared to the amount levied. Just $67,752 has been paid this year of the $3.8 million in fines that have been doled out for those violations.
The fines are usually based on the amount of the donation infraction. If a candidate didn't report a $2,000 donation on time, the candidate is fined $2,000. The Democratic Party of Illinois received two $300,000 fines in 2008, but the board voted 7-1 to void the fines because "proper notice was not provided to the committee so they could timely file the required reports," according to minutes from a 2009 hearing.
Jack Roeser isn't a fan of the state's election board. The chairman of the Carpentersville-based Family Taxpayers Network has been fined $64,063 by the state board since 2001 but only required to pay $6,482. Even that's too much, he said.
"It's a star-chamber proceeding where a bunch of guys in charge can be a nuisance if you don't pay up," Roeser said. "It's very, very difficult to make sure that you're following the narrow, narrow path that these guys are laying out. The whole thing is run in a very careless way."
Roeser said he now has a lawyer on staff to make sure his education finance reform organization toes the line.
But the strict adherence to the laws is the reason the board is so lenient with first-time offenders, Borgsmiller said. He believes the process keeps everyone in line.
"You have to file. You have to file in a timely manner. And the public has the right to know who's contributing," he said.
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