Alderman continues use of campaign donations for personal reasons

Alderman George Cardenas continues to use campaign contributions and taxpayer dollars for property he rents from his own family for over five years, while also paying relatives with these funds.

In 2009, the Chicago Tribune reported in their city council expense database that Cardenas, the democratic alderman of the 12th Ward, used 99 percent of his ward expense limit of $73,280, which is the same amount granted to all 50 wards in Chicago. This money is an allowance from the city, which is a taxpayer-funded account. Paying for the rental space for his ward office – provided by his family at the corner of West 38th Street – was the second largest expense that year. Since 2013, over $40,000 annually has gone toward rent in that same location.

According to Cardenas’ Illinois Board of Elections campaign finance reports for 2013 and 2014, almost $14,000 from campaign contributions and supporters was reported to be paid to relatives of the alderman and Cardenas himself.

According to the municipal code of Chicago, and the city’s ethics board, it is prohibited to use expenses for “personal, political or campaign-related expenses,” and “the direct monetary benefit of an alderman or any of his or her relatives, or any person in whom the alderman has a financial interest.”

“Personal use of campaign funds are banned by the election code,” Kent Redfield said, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “But personal use is a narrow definition that in general terms means that if the expenditure of committee funds by a public official could be considered income under the Federal Tax Code, and, therefore, trigger an income tax liability, then such an expenditure would be a violation of the Election Code and subject to penalty under state law.”

Redfield said that there are a lot of loopholes, where candidates can try to justify certain expenditures. The standards are considered “weak,” because there is no fine line between what is considered public or personal expenses. The vague statements in the municipal code are often to the candidate’s benefit, Redfield said.

Although the ordinance would consider this activity unethical, Cardenas said in a Tribune article in 2009 that he would move his office if the ethics board says he must, and he later did. The primary issue now is campaign donation expenses are still going toward the rent to the same property where the office was previously located.

According to Cook County records, Cardenas and six others – relatives and other city council workers – paid $715,000 to become owners of that property, so he does have a vested interest to pay.

Since 2013, Cardenas has also had issues with reporting funds and expenditures to the Illinois Board of Elections. In several amended quarterly reports, he had to pay the board almost $20,000 in fees for under-reporting specific expenditures. Most issues occurred with payments for rent, paying family members and himself and overall acceptance of contributions that exceeded limits or broke regulations.

“Fines assessed against committees are not uncommon,” Tom Newman said, the deputy director of campaign disclosure for the Illinois State Board of Elections. “But Friends of George Cardenas was certainly assessed more than the average committee.  In terms of over funding, the committee was cited for receiving a number of contributions in excess of the contribution limits. “

Newman said the committee is first notified of the overage in donations, and they have 30 days to either return the excess funds or donate an equal amount to charity.

“The Board determined that the committee attempted to return the overage amounts within the 30 day period, even though not every contributor cashed the committee's return check during that time, so the committee's appeal of the contribution limit violations were granted,” he said.

Redfield said that the State Board could even bring stricter action like having the candidate forfeit his or her own office, “but there is really no limit to the amount of fines a committee could incur.”

In repeated attempts to determine the result of the excess fines, Alderman Cardenas nor his spokesperson were available to comment.

Concerns about this spending have resulted in multiple fines on the committee, but Redfield said in these cases, there is not much else that can be done. “The only recourse to expenditures. which are ethically questionable but not illegal, is to draw public attention to them and bring public pressure,” he said.