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Monday, October 18, 2021

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Column: Misuse of public resources for political gain chips away at faith in democracy – Chicago Tribune

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What does former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment have to do with politics in Calumet City, Chicago Heights, Markham, Orland Park and other towns?

Plenty, for those worried about the erosion of democracy. Trump was impeached the first time for using public resources for political gain, and there are plenty of similar examples at the local level.

Trump normalized this practice when he staged campaign events at the White House and used Air Force One as a backdrop at rallies. Trump faced no consequences, despite federal laws that specifically prohibit such practices.

But there was Trump in August 2020, spending taxpayer dollars decking out the White House to accept his party’s nomination during the Republican National Convention.

Perhaps Trump’s use of the White House for a political rally inspired Markham Mayor Roger Agpawa to round up a bunch of other south suburban elected officials to stand with him for a campaign event April 25 at Markham City Hall.

Agpawa wanted to project confidence that he would eventually be found eligible to be mayor despite a felony conviction. He was right about the outcome, but wrong to rally at City Hall. Local politicians showed blatant disregard for the Illinois Constitution, which explicitly states public property shall only be used for public purposes.

I think Orland Park Mayor Keith Pekau uses Village Board meetings to grandstand for political gain. He bashed Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Democrats when the Orland Park Village Board unanimously passed a resolution that stated the village would not enforce the state’s indoor mask mandate.

I’m sure the anti-Pritzker tirade was perfectly legal because the subject matter dealt with village business. The resolution was on the agenda, after all. But it sure sounded like political speech to me.

No one seems to bat an eye at how quickly we have come to accept using public resources for political gain. As long as well-funded politicians get media attention for bashing political rivals, their supporters seem willing to overlook disregard for ethics.

I remember back in the old days as a reporter, I would sometimes call a politician at a government office to ask a political or campaign question. That person would typically take great pains to call back from a private phone number on personal time to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

Township government was notorious for abusing taxpayer resources for political gain. Townships would often print and mail newsletters, sometimes close to elections. The mailers resembled campaign brochures that touted all the wonderful achievements of elected officials.

Some townships painted names of trustees and other officials on vehicles used to transport senior citizens and others, like rolling political billboards funded by taxpayers.

As an aside, I applaud the integrity of former Gov. Pat Quinn, who abolished the practice of putting the governor’s name on signage at payment plazas along Illinois toll roads.

Nowadays we seem to have become accustomed to more egregious uses of public resources for political gain.

Some Southland elected officials are accused of spending public resources on financial audits in order to smear political rivals. In Calumet City, Mayor Thaddeus Jones has said an audit will reveal City Clerk Nyota Figgs has mismanaged public funds.

Observers should spot a big red flag in how Jones has sounded confident in the investigation’s outcome, even though the taxpayer-funded audit is ongoing and findings have yet to be presented to the city. Nonetheless, Jones stated in July that the audit would show Figgs made mistakes.

Similarly, Lori Wilcox, the Chicago Heights city clerk and Democratic Party committeeperson for Bloom Township, accused Chicago Heights Mayor David Gonzalez of ordering an audit of the Chicago Heights Public Library in order to smear Wilcox.

At the time of the audit’s release in December, Wilcox was a former president of the library board and running for Bloom Township supervisor. The audit accused Wilcox and Kelley Nichols-Brown, a former library director who was running for township trustee, of mishandling $440,000 in public funds.

I wrote an analysis of the audit in January in which I challenged whether the expenditures for a locksmith, cleaning services and other costs were actually improper or just framed as such for political gain.

The temptation to use public funds for political gain is great because such tactics often are effective. Several media outlets ran with such headlines as “Forensic Audit Details Allegations of Questionable Spending.” Wilcox, Nichols-Brown and their running mates lost the township elections in April.

Gonzalez, who runs an accounting firm, bristled at my premise when I offered him the opportunity to respond. BKD, the firm that conducted the Chicago Heights audit, was a reputable, certified firm founded in 1923 that could risk losing its license if it produced “dishonest, fraudulent, or misrepresented findings.”

“While Lori Wilcox may speak furtively with pet journalists, she refused to speak to BKD auditors when given the chance to explain library district spending under her now disgraced leadership,” said David Ormsby, a spokesman for Gonzalez.

I believe Trump’s smashing of norms is eroding ethics at every layer of government. I believe good civil servants are making questionable judgment calls because practices that were rightly condemned as unprincipled a short time ago are now considered acceptable.

Trump was impeached the first time for conspiring to withhold U.S. security assistance from Ukraine in order to pressure the Ukrainian president into making a statement about investigating Hunter Biden, son of President Joe Biden, who defeated Trump in the 2020 election. Who remembers that?

Text messages from Bill Taylor, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, were presented as evidence during the first of Trump’s two impeachments.

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“I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor wrote in a message.

Despite overwhelming evidence that Trump sought help from a foreign power for political purposes in violation of federal law, the Senate acquitted Trump. He is likely to be the Republican nominee for president in 2024.

Using public resources for political gain may work in the short term, but in the long run I believe the practice hurts everyone. Citizens would be wise to question whether their elected officials are using public funds for the public good or for personal benefit.

Ted Slowik is a columnist at the Daily Southtown.


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