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Former Veterans Affairs chief wrote checks totaling $50,000 to her mother from her political fund

The former state Veterans Affairs chief used her political campaign fund to write two checks totaling $50,000 to her mother last month, a move that state election officials say could be a violation of state election laws.

Linda Chapa LaVia said the checks – recorded as January expenses in her required campaign documents – were to pay off a loan her mother made to help kick-start her political career some two decades ago.

But Illinois State Board of Elections records show his campaign made no disclosure of a loan to his committee, initiated before his successful campaign to become a Democratic Aurora state representative. in 2003. Nor does it appear in the original documents establishing his political finance committee.

State election officials said failure to accurately report income is a violation of state campaign disclosure laws. After contacting election officials following BGA investigations, LaVia returned the $50,000 to his campaign account on Feb. 18, records show.

LaVia described the campaign snafu as an oversight.

“A lot of paperwork got lost in translation from one account to another and in a full-fledged campaign,” said LaVia, who was appointed by Gov. JB Pritzker to head the Department of Illinois veterans in 2019.

“I try to reconcile everything,” she says. “If mistakes have been made in the past, a lot of it was not my fault.”

LaVia said his campaign logistics at the time were handled by the political operation of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who resigned last year amid a federal investigation into the corruption. Madigan did not return requests for comment.

“Between opening my account and the speaker going into the account and taking everything into account, I don’t even know ‘how the loan was never reported,’ she said, adding that officers at Madigan took care of everything. “You are the candidate, and that’s all you do.”

LaVia resigned as veterans chief in January 2021 following reports of dozens of veteran deaths in state nursing homes with lax COVID-19 protocols.

Officials with the Board of Elections, the state agency responsible for investigating and sanctioning campaign disclosure violations, said they were in communication with LaVia to try to resolve the issue.

“We don’t know where it goes from here,” said Matt Dietrich of the state board of elections. He said he could not remember a time when a former politician had been fined or reprimanded for misusing funds from his campaign accounts.

“It’s the first time, that we can remember, where we’ve had this circumstance of a loan given to a committee, it’s paid back after the fact, but it’s never been taken into account throughout the whole process. history of the committee,” Dietrich said.

LaVia filed a new document — called A1 — to clarify what she said was a paperwork error.

Reformers denounce lax laws

Election reform groups have long advocated for tougher disclosure laws.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” said Jay Young, executive director of Common Cause Illinois, who has advocated for laws mirroring those in states such as California, where officials are “thoroughly analyzing all kinds of contributions, from loans and how those dollars come in and go out. outside.

“We obviously didn’t understand that here,” he said. “There’s not a lot of risk from law enforcement and sort of a slap on the wrist if you get caught.”

A review of election board records shows that more than 150 campaign disclosure complaints have been filed since January 1, 2017.

He said the board had fined some officials who failed to file campaign disclosure reports or amendments within the legally required deadlines. Dietrich said that in addition to investigating complaints, the council’s campaign disclosure division also conducts random audits of up to 3% of all campaign accounts each year.

While sanctions against candidates for improperly spending campaign funds are rare, a notable example came in 2016, when former Illinois State Rep. Frank Mautino — now Pritzker’s Auditor General — used $250,000 of campaign funds for fuel and repairs to his personal cars. He said he and his associates used the cars for campaign work.

After a process that bounced from the board to the courts to the Illinois Supreme Court and back to the board, state election officials decided not to pursue discipline against Mautino.

Under state law, former elected officials can keep their campaign accounts open indefinitely, Dietrich said.

A look at the campaign accounts of former elected officials amounts to millions of dollars, and the law restricts the use of all campaign funds to political activity. Notable examples of former officials with accounts still open include Madigan, former Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, former Gov. Jim Edgar — who now uses his fund to support political candidates and ideas — as well as former Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

“There are so many political committees, and it’s not realistic to comb through them all,” said Alisa Kaplan, executive director of Reform for Illinois. “But he has to audit enough to deter wrongdoing. And in the application, the board should allow enough leeway for some honest or trivial errors, so as not to prevent good candidates from gaining public office, while sending a message that people should follow the rules.

Kaplan and Young pointed to laws elsewhere, such as those in New York, with more proactive disclosure rules.

“We need to revise [and] replacing what I would say are very weak and limited disclosure forms,” Young said. “There are other options; it’s not rocket science; we can simply replicate what is being done – what is working well – in other states.

“My political days are over”

The $50,000 LaVia paid her mother, Mary Lou Chapa, first appeared in a Jan. 17 campaign filing as two “principal” payments of $25,000. In its filing, LaVia said the payments were a reimbursement for a “start-up loan for the 04/01/2003 campaign. Previously reported as contributions.

She said her accountant is working with the Board of Elections to try to document the loan, and she provided bank statements from 2001 to 2003 to help resolve the issue.

When LaVia and his team opened his committee in 2001, he should have reported the $50,000 loan. But instead, the fund’s balance at inception was zero dollars, Dietrich said.

“At a minimum, they will have to file a letter explaining all of this; so there are other possibilities that our disclosure division is now looking at to figure out how to handle that,” he said. “They may have to file over 20 years of amended reports to account for that missing $50,000.

“If what they’re telling us is true, there should have been an additional balance of $50,000 on all those reports,” Dietrich said. “This money was never shown to be held by the committee.”

The Board of Elections recommended that LaVia do two things: hire an accountant and audit the committee’s finances as thoroughly as possible; and amend quarterly committee reports as far as they can be amended.

The former state representative’s campaign committee could be fined for late filing its organizing statement, Dietrich said, adding that the council has yet to receive a formal complaint about it. .

“Every business day between when they received the loan and when they formed the committee would be subject to a fine of $50 up to $5,000,” Dietrich said. “Did she give it in October 2001, in which case 60 days before the organization of the committee? We just don’t know. … If there are no papers, I’m not sure how we could calculate this fine.

Lending money to a committee is not prohibited by state law, nor is making a loan to a family member’s campaign fund — but not reporting it is.

A review of campaign finance records shows that LaVia reported two more campaign loans in 2002 totaling $35,000 from her mother and her mother’s real estate company. His campaign records show that those loans were paid off within months.

LaVia said she plans to close the fund and ensure “all documents are submitted correctly.”

“You might like to have done X, Y or Z or have more information about what was going on, but you’re not doing it because you’re being told to be a candidate,” she said. “We are trying to make sure we are working with the board and only closing the account properly once this is understood.”

LaVia said she no longer needed a campaign fund: “My political days are over.”