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Editor's Note: Dan McCaleb is on vacation this week. His column will return next week.

When it comes to political graft, paying people under the table isn’t too complicated – as long as you have some blurred lines to hide in.

That’s the lesson underlying the tragi-comic saga of Frank Mautino.

In the eyes of the law, Mautino is not yet guilty of corruption, though he is under federal investigation. On July 10, the Illinois State Board of Elections rendered a partisan 4-4 vote on whether to fine his now-defunct campaign committee for violating campaign finance rules.

Mautino is the state’s auditor-in-chief, but has demonstrated over the course of a two-year case before the board that he can’t keep his own books clean. This is about more than just Mautino’s actions, however. What his case has also revealed is a problematic process in rooting out bribery, fraud and other wrongdoing in Illinois campaigns.

Mautino might not be corrupt. But his conduct mirrored that of a person engaging in corrupt behavior.

Consider two practices at the crux of the case against Mautino, involving campaign spending from his previous job as a state representative.

First, his campaign spent more than $225,000 from 1999 to 2015 at a single service station in his legislative district for gas and repairs of vehicles owned by him, his family members and various associates. However, the election code required the campaign committee to reimburse vehicle owners on a per-mile basis for the use of their vehicles for campaign purposes. Inevitably filling up the tanks of personal vehicles will result in paying these vehicle owners for the personal use of their vehicles. And that seems to be the case here when you consider $225,000 buys enough fuel to drive around the circumference of the earth a few times over.

Second, Mautino’s campaign committee would write checks in the name of the bank – usually in round dollar amounts in increments of tens or hundreds – cash those checks from the committee’s checking account at the bank, and purportedly spend the cash on campaign expenditures. They only sometimes saved receipts and never returned any cash not used. The campaign committee spent more than $150,000 this way.

This is suspicious behavior, to say the least. By withdrawing cash and making expenditures in cash without reporting the recipient of those expenditures, the committee masked the recipient of that cash.

So who got paid? Mautino won’t say. He’s refused to speak about the case before the board.

That point cannot be overemphasized. The state’s auditor general is actually pleading the Fifth Amendment when asked about his own clearly improper reporting. And deadlocked votes like the one this week have kept everything in limbo.

Mautino hasn’t shouldered any significant consequences, save for a $5,000 fine after failing to provide additional documentation to the board, which his now-defunct campaign committee can’t even pay.

Beyond the election code itself, the manner in which cases like Mautino’s even come up in the first place seem to grant much more power to the politically privileged than the average person.

The Mautino case was initiated by Streator resident David Cooke. And if the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center hadn’t stepped in to offer representation pro bono, the case likely would not have been able to stick around as long as it has. The Liberty Justice Center is the litigation partner of the Illinois Policy Institute.

Requiring average citizens to serve as prosecutors against misbehaving politicians is a standard worth re-examining. Unfortunately, Illinoisans will need to rely on lawmakers to improve their own oversight. And recent events surrounding the state’s hog-tied legislative inspector general show spinelessness on this front.

Notably, state Rep. Grant Wehrli, R-Naperville, filed a resolution in January 2017 to remove Mautino from the auditor general post.

“Our auditor general cannot answer simple financial questions about the books that he was supposed to be in charge of and yet now he’s the fiscal watchdog for our state,” Wehrli told the Illinois News Network.

“[It’s] absolutely unconscionable to me that this man remains in office.”

Wehrli is right. What’s even more concerning is that holding Mautino to account requires checks and balances in state government that appear impotent at the moment.

Leaders should weigh in with their solutions.

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Austin Berg wrote this column for the Illinois News Network, a project of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, a non-profit media company dedicated to the principles of transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility. Austin can be reached at aberg@illinoispolicy.org.

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