Take Me Out to the Ball Game: Illinois Political Leaders Spend Hundreds of Thousands on Sports Tickets

Since January 2016, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s political campaign has spent more than $700,000 to purchase tickets to Chicago Cubs, White Sox and Bulls games.

Senate President John Cullerton’s campaign bought over $300,000 in sports tickets. Together, according to state records, they have spent $1,037,641.

"I was shocked," said Susan Garrett, a former state senator and Chairwoman of the Board of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, when shown the numbers.

Never in her "wildest dreams," Garrett said, would she imagine a top political leader spending so exorbitantly.

The totals are found on the Illinois State Board of Elections website - and come screaming at you like a 95-mile-an-hour fastball.

From January 1, 2016, to March 31, 2018, state records show Madigan's committee made:

- 14 purchases of Cubs tickets, ranging from $380 to $129,000 and totaling over $446,000

- Five purchases of White Sox tickets, totaling over $171,000

- Bulls tickets totaling over $95,000

All together, the total came to more than $700,000, according to state records.

When asked what word came to her mind, Garrett replied, “incomprehensible.”

Over that same period of time, records show Cullerton’s spent:

- $171,000 on Cubs tickets, including purchases of over $10,000 during the 2016 World Series run

- $73,000 on Sox tickets

- $80,000 to watch the Bulls

"The law says you can do it. You can spend as much as you want to spend as long as it is not for personal use," said Garrett, who served in the Illinois Senate from 2003 to 2013. Prior to that she represented the north suburbs in the Illinois House.

"And you may not think that’s the way a campaign ought to be run but that’s not up to you," said Ken Menzel, general counsel for the Illinois Board of Elections. It's up to the Illinois General Assembly, he said, which sets the rules that govern how politicians can spend their campaign cash.

In a statement, Madigan’s office said, "The tickets are used to thank supporters and volunteers" and when "the Speaker…or his family uses the tickets they pay for them with personal funds."

Cullerton’s campaign said in a statement, "Primarily, the sports tickets are donated to charitable organizations as a way to show support and assist with their fundraising and advocacy efforts. Less frequently, the tickets are used as an event-based fundraising tool. The tickets are utilized as a vehicle to cultivate new relationships with supporters and show appreciation and recognition of donors and volunteers."

Neither Gov. Bruce Rauner nor his Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker purchased sports tickets through their campaigns. The combined total for Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady and House Minority Leader Jim Durkin was just over $5,000 for the same period.

Garrett said the tickets are great campaign perks - but what concerned her, she said, is “We don’t know who attended those games," adding that she favors disclosing who receives the tickets.

Before 1999, Illinois lawmakers could use political funds for country club memberships or college tuition.

"This is much more that a country club membership or tuition to college or private school or whatever. This is beyond anybody’s expectations,” Garrett said, urging lawmakers to find the will to change the law.

"I think now that lawmakers see this and understand how much money is being spent,” she said, “they might say that’s too much not to disclose.”

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