The state budget impasse didn’t stop newly elected Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza from purchasing a $32,000 used SUV as part of her department’s fleet — paid in full by public dollars to a central Illinois dealership.
Mendoza campaigned on a pledge to prioritize state payments, but her office said the money for the SUV came from an office fund with no connection to the state’s massive bill backlog.
Mendoza’s office on Friday said the vehicle was purchased in January to replace an inoperable car — one of her offices’ nine cars — that was rejected as a trade-in and will be junked. And they noted various offices of state government have purchased more than $11 million in vehicles — excluding leases — over the last two years.
The purchase comes as she is under Republican scrutiny after defeating Leslie Munger, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s appointed pick for comptroller. Munger was recently appointed deputy governor.
With Mendoza’s name in the mix as a future Democratic candidate for higher office, every purchase, every trip, every speech is being watched with great interest.
The used car — a 2016 Ford Explorer SUV — was purchased on Jan. 26 at a car dealership in Downstate El Paso for $32,279.15, according to state records on the comptroller’s website, and confirmed by the comptroller’s office.
Records show it was paid for in full via a voucher from the “lump sums and other purposes” appropriation category. The comptroller’s office said it was paid for via the comptroller’s administrative fund, which is a non-general revenue fund and is unrelated to the state’s massive bill backlog.
According to records from the Illinois Secretary of State’s office, the car was registered as being based in Springfield, and was purchased with 16,436 miles on it.
The office had nine cars when Mendoza took office, which are used to collect and distribute checks, W2’s and other employee forms for all state offices. Besides the car that was rejected for a trade-in, the comptroller was also assigned a 2005 rear-wheel drive Chrysler 300 with 104,000 miles and in need of extensive repairs. That car was traded in for $1,500.
Mendoza’s office said the comptroller told staff to find a “used American-made car big enough to hold staff” on weekly trips to Springfield and around the state. Mendoza, herself, is a frequent passenger in the car, which is used to drive back and forth from Chicago to Springfield. Her office said she wanted a “safe” car, and they called it a long-term investment.
“This pool car will serve the office for years to come,” her office said.
That reduces the department’s cars to eight, including a 1998 Ford Cargo that only travels between the Capitol and her Springfield office three blocks away “and carries a bold warning on the dashboard not to take it on the expressway,” her office said.
Mendoza defeated Munger in the state’s most expensive race last year – and it was viewed as a proxy war between Rauner and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. Democrats viewed Mendoza’s victory as a big win in their war with Rauner. During the campaign, and even after her victory, Mendoza has been a target for the Rauner-led Illinois Republican Party — who claim she’s “bought and paid for by Boss Madigan.” Mendoza, the former Chicago city clerk, has long fought off those claims, saying she’s an independent politician.
When Mendoza took office last year, she vowed to prioritize the most vulnerable before any other — volunteering that she won’t pay lawmakers unless a court order instructs her to do so.
“I, too, will be putting my paycheck in the same queue as everybody else’s, because in these times of fiscal crisis, these must be times of shared sacrifice, and we must prioritize the most vulnerable first,” Mendoza said then.
As comptroller, Mendoza is the state’s check writer — with limited discretion in who gets paid amid the budget impasse. Her office has a say in about 10 percent of the budget, with about 90 percent already prioritized via court orders and consent decrees.
Mendoza came under fire in December after she accused Munger of leaving offices that appeared “looted” — with “missing car keys,” little furniture and locked desks. Munger has denied those accusations, saying the offices were fully inventoried as her staff moved out.