In the first three months of 2015, as Chicago voters headed to the polls in a citywide election, 8th Ward Alderman and Committeeman Michelle Harris spent more than $134,000 in campaign funds and did not have to disclose how the money was spent.
During the same time frame, from January through March, 26th Ward Alderman Roberto Maldonado spent over $39,000 while 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale spent close to $20,000, all according to Illinois State Board of Elections campaign finance records.
The figures are found on campaign disclosure forms commonly called D-2s, located in the expenditure section labeled “Not Itemized.” Candidates running for office are required to file the forms four times a year. According to Board regulations, all expenditures over $150 must be accounted for, but expenses under that amount don’t have to be itemized.
“The whole purpose of this filing system is to give the public a look into how this money is being spent,” said Sarah Brune, a campaign finance expert who sits on the advisory board of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
In the 2015 election cycle, 27th Ward Alderman and Committeeman Walter Burnett reported itemized expenditures of $28,667 and non-itemized costs of $23,046, or 44% of his spending that quarter.
According to Brune, non-itemized spending should be a small percentage of overall costs.
How campaign funds are spent became an issue in the 2018 gubernatorial primary when Burnett, along with other aldermen, received contributions from Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker.
Burnett defended the $15,000 he received this way: "The way it works now in order for a committeeman to open, just to open up your doors on Election Day it costs you on average $10,000, just to open up your door,” he said while standing outside City Hall in early March.
After several attempts to reach Burnett by phone were unsuccessful, the alderman was approached outside a political fundraiser and asked specifically how that money was spent on Election Day.
“So, uh, it cost $10,000 because you’ve got to feed the judges, you have to pay people to work, all of that stuff,” he said. “Myself and my accountant, we give records of everything, we have them if the State Board of Elections was to ever ask for them.”
When asked if we could have copies of his receipts, Burnett replied, “I, if the State Board of Elections asks for them we’ll give them to them. I don’t know why you are picking on me.”
The percentage of itemized versus non-itemized expenses for Harris was even more stark during the first quarter of 2015. She reported $28,139 in itemized expenditures and $51,303 in non-itemized costs in her aldermanic filing. In her role as committeeman, Harris reported $5,093 in itemized costs versus $82,960 for which no explanation is offered.
"It is hard to come up with a reasonable explanation to that, but I think it is a good question for the campaign to account for this major spending that they didn’t disclose," Brune said. "It gives us no picture of what they actually spent the money on, it almost makes the filing meaningless."
Harris did not reply to questions about her expenses.
Though it is all legal, for watchdogs like Jay Young of Common Cause, the non-itemized expenditures raise a red flag.
“It certainly is undisciplined,” he said, “and not transparent.”
Back to the question: how is that money spent? The answer, from Burnett, is rooted more in politics than democracy, when ward bosses could get constituents jobs.
“In the old days, you used to be able to get people a lot of jobs, and folks used to work for you and all of those things, now you pretty much got to help people to help you or you won’t be able to have any help because people don’t do anything for nothing,” he said.
During the last citywide election, we counted 16 alderman who in that same three months in 2015 had non-itemized expenses totaling more than $10,000.
That included Maldonado, who did not respond to our questions, and Beale, whose office said it would supply a breakdown of the more than $19,000 in non-itemized expenses. That breakdown provided listed more than $18,000 categorized only as “election day expenses.”
“And I’m happy that you are not just picking on me," Burnett said. "I’m happy that you are looking at everyone else and I’m happy that I shared some information with you. And I’m done."
And with that, Burnett walked into his fundraiser.