Political groups owe Illinois $700k in overdue fines, with little reason to pay

September 13, 2011

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(WBEZ/file)
Ald. Ricardo Munoz of Chicago's 22nd Ward controls a political committee that owes $17,500 in overdue fines.

Political groups owe the state of Illinois hundreds of thousands of dollars in overdue fines. All campaign committees must make public who gave them money, and how they spent it. That's the law. And if they file these reports late, they can be fined. But a lot of times those fines just sit there unpaid.

The Illinois State Board of Elections posts on its website a list of overdue fines. Close to 200 political committees are there, ranging from the Putnam County Democratic Central Committee, which owes $25, to the Friends of William Burch, which owes $35,500.

Burch is a former candidate for Chicago alderman. He knew he'd been fined, but did not know he owed the most in the state.

BURCH: I'm shocked. I mean, when you told me that, I was just sitting here with my mouth wide open. I'm like the center of attention now, how about that?

HUDZIK: Not for what you wanted to be the center of attention for.

BURCH: Of course not. No. I don't want to be center of attention for outstanding fines or whatever.

After losing his election in 2007, Burch didn't know he had to keep filing reports with the election board. Burch said he didn't get reminders to file, because they were sent to an old post office box.

BURCH: It wasn't like, you know, I was trying to slack off or ignore the fact that those reports were due. It's just that I didn't know that we had to file reports if we weren't running.

Altogether, the list of overdue fines owed to the state by various political committees adds up to nearly $700,000, with the oldest one going back to 1999.

Rupert Borsgmiller is executive director of the state board of elections.

BORGMSILLER: Basically the fines are infractions or assessments that we levy for failure to file reports in a timely fashion.

The reports, required by law, are intended to add transparency to the money in Illinois' political system. With some exceptions, voters get to know who is giving money to candidates. If those reports are filed late more than once, Borgsmiller says a political committee gets fined. And if the committee ignores that fine...

BORGSMILLER: We then post it on the website as a committee that owes money to the state for failure to file a report or reports in a timely fashion.

HUDZIK: Sort of like a public shaming?

BORGSMILLER: Well, we publish it out there to let people know for those committees that do owe money.

Among those owing money is the 22nd Ward Independent Political Organization, a campaign fund controlled by Chicago Ald. Ricardo Munoz. It's racked up $17,500 in fines that were due this spring.

Munoz's staff would not make him available for an interview. Though, in a statement, his advisor, Andrew Sharp, noted that the fund has "essentially been inactive for the past few years."

Filings with the state board show the account raised just $2,127.07 during the periods covered by the late reports.

"After being alerted to the fines by WBEZ, we plan to close this committee quickly and start conversations with the [board of elections] to resolve any and all outstanding fines," Sharp said.

The advisor said that to his knowledge, neither Ald. Munoz nor his staff were aware of the fines before we called. But Rupert Borgsmiller claimed the board sent four notices to the address listed for the committee.

BORGSILLER: A letter was sent out on March the 9th to the 22nd Ward Independent [Political] Organization, Ricardo Munoz, at 2500 S. St. Louis, 2nd Floor.

That's the same Chicago address that Munoz put on a recent campaign filing.

Munoz is running for Cook County Circuit Court clerk in next year's election. If the 22nd Ward organization were his primary campaign fund, local election officials could block him from getting on the ballot if he refused to pay the fines.

But since the organization is technically a "political action committee," the board cannot keep Munoz from running, and has no way of forcing him to pay up, or forcing any PAC to pay.

BORGSMILLER: The whole thing comes down to the fact that this is an assessment not against an individual. It's against the political committee.

The law just does not give the election board any power to go after them.

But some political committees still choose to close up shop when hit with a big fine. That's what happened with the PAC headed by Joanne Rock. She leads a trade group of printing companies, which until recently controlled Illinois PrintPAC.

ROCK: To play the game in Illinois, you kind of need a fair amount of money. And that PAC certainly didn't have it.

An address change and a mail room mix-up led to Rock not getting reminders to file financial reports with the election board. She was late - twice - adding up to a $10,000 fine. So Rock shut the political committee down after talking with election board staff. The overdue fine, though, stays listed on the board's website for two years.

HUDZIK: Is that all embarrassing. I mean, do you feel at all deadbeat-ish about that?

ROCK: Nope, not at all. Not at all. My personal opinion on this is that the fine system is ludicrous. I can understand that they want to have filings on time. But what do the filings do? It's saying, here's a PAC that had $4,000 or $5,000 in it. And we contributed $500 to Senator Lauzen's annual picnic. Wow. You know, it's not that big a deal. So the fines being this size, it's ridiculous.

JONES: My name is Rikki Jones, President of Cook County Democratic Women.

Rikki Jones has an entirely different take on these penalties. Her group, Cook County Democratic Women, was fined $5,000 last fall, because of a late campaign finance report. Jones said one of her members promised to turn in the report, but never did.

JONES: And so what I've learned through all of this, is to take it down there and file it myself.

But she still had that fine to deal with. And even though there's nothing in the law to force her to pay it, she's determined to.

JONES: The reason I want to pay it off is because we owe the money. And I want to be a credible organization, and how can you be a credible organization if you don't follow rules? And I can't say, 'Oh, I want to support you for governor, and I want you to be honest,' and then owe money and say, 'Oh they can't do nothing about it so I'm not going to pay it.' When we don't get out stuff on time, then we have to pay the consequences.

And she's started, paying off a few hundred dollars so far. Just $4,412 to go.