“Elections are very expensive, some more than others,” said 30th ward Ald. Ariel Reboyras as he sat in his Northwest Side office.
Just a few months earlier, he was in the political fight of his life.
“Very intense,” he said, describing the race that pitted him against two challengers, including Jessica Gutierrez, daughter of former Congressman Luis Gutierrez
A 16-year veteran of the Chicago City Council, Reboyras led by just 27 votes when the ballots were counted and a runoff with Gutierrez ensued.
Both spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in itemized expenses, according to campaign finance records.
But what about expenses that are not-itemized?--A category seldom looked at.
Combining both races, Gutierrez spent just over $11,000 and Reboyras nearly $57,000 in the first two quarters of 2019.
Getting volunteers to work, Reboyras noted, is expensive.
"You’ve got to give them money for breakfast, lunch and dinner," he said. "You can’t win if you don’t have volunteers to do the leg work."
And keeping track of receipts for smaller amounts, he said, can be tricky.
Since 1974, politicians haven’t had to publish any expenditure under $150, per state law.
“Those are not available to the public, so that’s where the shenanigans can take place,” said David Orr, who was interim mayor following the death of Harold Washington and Cook County Clerk for nearly three decades.
Orr now heads the watchdog group Good Governance Illinois.
“Legally the only thing that can be done is to change the state law and I know how difficult that is,” he said during an interview in his Rogers Park home. “It doesn’t have to be at $150. It could be at $100. It could be at $50.”
State records show 11 Chicago aldermen reported spending more than $10,000 in not-itemized expenditures last election including Carrie Austin. She defeated Preston Brown, junior in the 34th ward.
Brown said he spent $4,800 for volunteers to pass out “palm cards, at precincts, urging people to vote for me.”
Austin’s 34th Ward Committee spent over $48,000 from January through March, according to state campaign finance reports.
“To have $48,000 in un-itemized expenses, that is unreasonable,” said Brown, who lost the race by just over 1,000 votes.
Austin did not return NBC 5's phone calls, so we went to her Far South Side ward office to try and find out how she spent the money. We were told the alderman was not in and no one knew when she would be back in her ward office.
In June, federal agents raided the 34th ward office in what appears to be an unrelated matter. NBC 5 previously reported that federal agents were searching for documents relating to Austin’s purchase of a new home. Austin has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
Now in the 34th ward, Brown is currently collecting signatures to run against Austin again, for ward committeeman.
Reboyras too will be running to maintain his committeeman seat. And while politicians have been historically shy about discussing what is commonly referred to as “walking around money,” Reboyras wasn’t, agreeing to discuss it openly and candidly.
“Be upfront, when, when anyone wants to talk to you, talk to them,” he said is his philosophy.
He even checked, he said, to see if he should be disclosing more information when it comes to not-itemized expenses.
“I asked my accountant, 'is that something we should be doing?' And he says, "no the State Board of Elections doesn’t request it,' it’s perfectly legal,” Reboyras said.
Orr agreed, however, the lack of disclosure for politicians statewide he argued, creates too many mysteries, adding, “In Illinois political history, those are dangerous.”