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EDITORIAL: One game of legalized political bribery we can end right now

Politicians should not be allowed to personally pocket campaign money that was raised from donors who have a vested interest in how they vote.

Sun-Times photo illustration

Let’s say your local state representative votes to spend millions of dollars on a new bridge somewhere in Illinois.

And let’s say the construction firm that will build the bridge had given the state representative thousands of dollars in campaign donations.

You might fairly wonder if your state rep, when voting for that bridge, was working for you or the construction company.

But it happens all the time in Illinois, at all levels of government.

And, until the late 1990s, those campaign contributions could easily be converted by lawmakers for personal expenses, such as a trip to Italy or college tuition for their kids. When he was an Illinois state senator, Barack Obama called the practice “legalized bribery.”

As Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown wrote Monday, this is exactly what happens when lawmakers convert campaign contributions that they received before June 30, 1998, into personal cash. They usually do the switcheroo when they retire, so the voters can’t retaliate, but not always.

Protected by a grandfather clause in a 1998 campaign finance reform bill, at least 55 former lawmakers have transferred more than $5 million in campaign contributions to their private cookie jars since the law took effect. The top beneficiary of the loophole, ex-state Rep. Ralph Capparelli, D-Chicago, pocketed $583,357.

And the grab game is not about to end. Another $5 million or more sitting in some 200 other active campaign committee accounts is eligible, under the grandfather clause, to be transferred to personal use.

How do we stop this?

As Brown wrote, the Legislature should repeal the grandfather clause, perhaps with a brief grace period. Politicians — whether in Springfield or the Chicago City Council — should not be allowed to personally pocket campaign money that was raised from donors who have a vested interest in how they vote.

“It never looks good when public officials use funds they received through their public offices for their personal aggrandizement,” Alisa Kaplan, policy director of Reform for Illinois, said on Tuesday. “We are concerned when anything undermines the trust of the public.”

Converting campaign cash into personal funds is one of many ways that big-donor money gets between ordinary people and the elected officials who are supposed to represent them. It’s part of a web of dark money and flabby regulation that undermines democracy in Illinois.

We favor more complete campaign contribution disclosures, stricter ethics rules and public election financing through small-donor matches — or perhaps through vouchers that voters can give to the candidate of their choice.

We’re tired of your grandfather’s Illinois.

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