Friday, October 07, 2005

Daily Grind

At least four stories ran today on Scott Fawell's testimony yesterday and they all ran with the same focus: Ryan paid campaign funds to his relatives for little or no work. This may have been the main focus of the prosecution's argument, but only one paper (read them all to see which one) went on to say what was really wrong with the SoS office.

Up until 1998, there was no law against spending campaign funds on personal use. It's still legal to hire relatives. There has long been a law requiring campaigns to pay "fair market value" for expenditures, but that has usually been understood to mean that campaigns can't pay below market, getting an under-the-table in-kind contribution, rather than over paying, which is what Fawell suggests Citizens for Ryan was doing.

Campaigns have long been used as personal piggy banks. Some used their funds to pay for retirement home, parking tickets, even a funeral. And all of it was legal (provided they reported it to the IRS as income). Some of it still is; under circumstances like those, the late Sen. Paul Simon used to compare campaign contributions with legalized bribery. The misuse of campaign funds is shocking and offensive, but it's not the only thing Fawell discussed yesterday.

What also came out was how the pressure on state workers to raise campaign funds cheated taxpayers. Employees of the Secretary of State's office were expected to sell fundraising tickets -- or buy them. Previous Safe Road trials have shown that some employees took bribes to get enough cash to buy the tickets, and as a result licensed drivers who were unsafe at any speed. Yesterday's testimony noted that other employees took to looting the petty cash --- stealing money from the state -- to cover their ticket allotment. Their behavior is shameful, but not nearly as bad as the supervisors who made clear that promotions and raises depended not on job performance but on fundraising prowess.

Illinois has made some progress. Soliciting state employees on the job is now a crime. What insiders call "the ask" is sufficient to justify a criminal charge, even if no funds change hands. Fawell's testimony yesterday showed how deeply corrupted the operation had become. And while paying relatives with campaign funds for no-show work is unseemly, let's not lose sight of the big picture: under Ryan, the SoS office was thoroughly perverted for political purposes.

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