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Illinois law says ex-pols can keep campaign cash for personal use. One just pocketed $392,606.

Ex-Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan is the latest former elected official to cash in on leftover contributions made to his campaign fund. It’s legal — but shouldn’t be.

Former Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan is the latest Illinois politician who’s decided to pocket his unused campaign cash.
Former Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan is the latest Illinois politician who’s decided to pocket his unused campaign cash.
Jean Lachat / Sun-Times file

Former Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan is the latest Illinois politician to cash out his campaign fund by pocketing the balance.

Sheahan, who also once was 19th Ward alderman, paid himself $392,606 in January out of his Citizens for Michael F. Sheahan campaign committee before closing its books nearly 15 years after he last held public office.

It’s a dubious practice that’s completely legal under Illinois law, though it shouldn’t be.

It just seems obviously unethical to me for elected officials to use the power of their office to solicit campaign funds that they then use to line their own pockets, even if they wait until retirement to collect. Former President Barack Obama once called the practice “legalized bribery.”

But the Illinois Legislature only half agreed with me. Legislators voted in 1998 to ban the practice — but only for all future politicians in the state, exempting themselves along with anyone else who already had a campaign fund.

Since then, government officials and former officials have been allowed to cash out an amount equal to whatever money they held in their political accounts on June 30, 1998. The only requirement is that they must pay income taxes on the money.

For decades before that, politicians in Illinois had regarded their campaign funds as a personal nest egg, a protection against the day when voters turned them out, as if their generous government pensions weren’t enough.

Sheahan is collecting somewhere upwards of $225,000 a year in county and city pensions, more than he ever made as sheriff.

Now 77, he was sheriff from 1990 to 2006 and 19th Ward alderman for nearly 12 years before that.

When he left office in 2006, the Chicago Democrat still had $924,749 in his campaign fund. By law, he would have been allowed to keep $561,332 for himself because that was how much he had in the account on June 30, 1998.

Sheahan drew down the balance gradually over the past 15 years, mainly by making charitable and political contributions.

Burt Odelson, Sheahan’s longtime election lawyer and friend, cited the former sheriff’s charitable history in defense of his decision to cash out.

Odelson said Sheahan previously donated “hundreds of thousands” in campaign money to such causes as Catholic Charities, Misericordia, Special Olympics and law enforcement personnel in need.

“He is the most honorable elected official I’ve ever represented and a good guy,” Odelson said. “I personally have told him he should have cashed this out a long time ago.”

Odelson said Sheahan, who declined to speak with me, “paid well over $100,000” in taxes on his campaign cashout.

Sheahan and I always got along, and I take no particular joy in busting his chops. But any politician planning to pocket money from a campaign fund ought to know that doing so could earn them one more unpleasant headline.

Since writing about this issue in 2019, I am aware of only two other Illinois officials who have subsequently cashed out their campaign funds: former Cook County Board President Bobbie Steele, who walked away with $29,694 in January 2020, and former state Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican, who paid himself $53,398 in December after retiring.

They join at least 55 other Illinois public officials who previously had paid themselves more than $5 million combined in campaign money since Illinois legislators created the loophole.

There still are dozens more current and former elected officials collectively holding millions of dollars more in their campaign funds that predate June 1998 that they therefore could choose to keep for themselves.

But just because they are allowed to take the money doesn’t mean they should. They might instead donate it to charity or even contribute to the candidates of their choosing.

Another possibility would be to return leftover money to the people who gave it to them, as Sheahan indicated he would do when he filed his campaign fund’s official “statement of organization” in 1992.

Ralph Capparelli, the late former state representative, cashed in big-time on his political funds, taking $583,357 for personal use — more than any other Illinois politician has done.
Ralph Capparelli, the late former state representative, cashed in big-time on his political funds, taking $583,357 for personal use — more than any other Illinois politician has done.
Sun-Times file

I’ve urged state lawmakers to just close the loophole, but they haven’t shown any interest in doing so.

Sheahan’s $392,606 closeout payment to himself isn’t the largest sum taken by a former government official in Illinois. That honor still belongs to the late state Rep. Ralph Capparelli, D-Chicago, a likable scoundrel from the Northwest Side who walked away with $583,357 from his campaign funds between 2006 and 2010.

Capparelli died in December at 96.

Two years ago, I mentioned to Capparelli he could have given the money to charity.

Capparelli, who at the time was also drawing government pensions that totaled more than $200,000 a year, just laughed.

“I’m the charity,” he said.

Hearing that, I had to laugh, too.

As usual, though, the joke is on us.