Outgoing Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has more than a million dollars in his campaign account. When he retires, he can take all of it with him for personal use. The mayor is not saying if he will, but it would be perfectly legal if he does. Many other Illinois politicians have exercised that right.
Daley last month reported more than $1.1 million in his campaign account. Under Illinois law, he can close it out whenever he wants, and take all that cash with him into retirement. But when I asked Daley last week if he plans to do that, he had no interest in answering.
"I don't know yet," Daley said.
The mayor may not know yet, but it's not like this possibility has crept up on him. In fact, prior to a 1998 state law, all politicians in Illinois could use their political accounts as personal ATMs.
"It was the Wild West before this ethical change in Illinois campaign spending," said state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Republican from Hinsdale. "One could convert their campaign fund for personal use if they...income tax [on it]."
Dillard sponsored the 1998 law along with then-state Sen. Barack Obama.
"We came along with a major, major piece of legislation. But one of the sticking points was the personal use exemption of campaign funds," Dillard said.
Dillard said he had hoped to ban all personal use of campaign cash. But some powerful members of the General Assembly, Dillard said, had no interest in giving up what they'd assumed would be a retirement account. So a compromise was needed - a loophole, if you will.
"When they passed this legislation, they grand-fathered all of the candidates in, so that the money that they had as of June 30th, 98, could be converted for personal use," explained Rupert Borgsmiller, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections.
And that is why Mayor Daley is allowed to take that million-plus dollars.
"If he wants to, he can," Borgsmiller said.
And quite a few politicians have written themselves checks from their campaign accounts. They aren't too interested in talking about it, though, whether they took $10,000 like state representative-turned lobbyist Vince Persico, or close to $600,000, like former Rep. Ralph Capparelli.
Former state Sen. Walter Dudycz took more than $130,000. He refused to comment for this story because, he said, he's just trying to enjoy his retirement. Many other former politicians just didn't return my calls.
"I'm shocked. Frankly, I'm shocked," Cindi Canary said sacastically, after laughing.
Canary heads the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, an activist group that tries to track political spending. Canary noted that it is hard to get a good idea of the total amount withdrawn by politicians for personal use, because there's no uniform way they are required to report such expenses to the state election board.
A search on the board's website does find more than $2 million in personal draws, but there's no question the real total is much higher than that.
Some politicians - current and retired - keep their political accounts open, and use them to pay for cell phone bills, airplane tickets and dinner meetings. Canary said the somewhat blurry distinction between political and personal expenses actually came up during the 1998 General Assembly debate over these rules.
"One of the legislators said, 'Well, what if I buy a red, white and blue shirt to march in the Fourth of July parade, that would be for a political purpose,'" Canary recalled, paraphrasing an issue brought up by Persico on the House floor. "'But then I get home, and it's hot and I drink a beer but I forget to take off my red, white and blue shirt, then it's personal use.'"
For her part, Canary does not think politicians should take the money for personal use, whether they're entitled to or not.
"I believe that people have given candidates campaign contributions to further their political careers, their ideas, their philosophies, and not necessarily to buy a retirement condo," Canary said.
Mayor Daley probably does not need the $1.1 million from his campaign account to buy a retirement condo. He's earned a healthy salary over the years, and will soon start getting a pension of about $180,000 a year. Add to that the income he may collect for giving speeches, and Daley can likely afford to put his campaign cash to other uses.
"I could very well see the mayor dedicating money to a bike path," Canary said.
The mayor could also keep his campaign account open for as long as he wants, and continue to dole it out to candidates he supports: an easy way for a retired politician to make sure current politicians return his calls.