Local politicians are supposed to spend money from their campaign funds on campaigning – or so the thinking goes.

But a recent investigation by the Better Government Association and Chicago magazine shows that isn’t always the case.

We analyzed campaign disclosure records from Jan. 1, 2007, through Sept. 30, 2012, for thousands of political campaign committees in Illinois.

Those funds benefit state senators and representatives, suburban mayors, Cook County commissioners, and other major city, county and state elected officials, among others.

While no serious red flags surfaced for most politicians, a significant few, our investigation discovered, treat their funds like personal piggy banks, buttressing a lifestyle that otherwise is out of reach on a public servant’s salary.

Under state and federal law, elected officeholders and political candidates can spend campaign money only on things with a campaign- or government-related purpose. But some politicians get around the rule by stretching the definition of “campaign-related” to include, well, just about anything – including spa services, cigars and a People magazine subscription.

The BGA and Chicago magazine also found numerous examples of politicians paying for luxury cars, overseas trips and meals at top-flight restaurants across the city.

More specifically, we found:

  • Campaign committees controlled by Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, the county Democratic Party chairman, spent nearly $200,000 over the past five years at Gibsons, Mart Anthony’s Italian Restaurant and Steakhouse, and other swanky eateries. On the required disclosure filings, he lists the meals as “meetings.”
  • Political funds controlled by Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, the head of the Illinois Democratic Party, spent more than $900,000 over the past five years on tickets (and related expenses) for White Sox, Cubs, Bulls and Notre Dame games. A spokesman for Madigan says many of the tickets were given away.
  • Chicago Ald. Dick Mell (33rd) owns the building that houses his ward operation. Over the past five years, he has paid himself more than $230,000 in rent, more than any other politician who acted as his or her own landlord.
  • Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White spent more than $77,000 on vehicle expenses, allowing him to have campaign-funded cars in both Chicago and Springfield.
  • Politicians can’t use campaign funds to buy a home but Terry Link, a veteran state senator from Waukegan, uses campaign money to pay the monthly lot lease fee of $280 for a mobile home in Springfield. That’s not against the rules but state records show Link also collects a taxpayer-provided per diem of $111 – a stipend designed to pay for hotels and meals when the Legislature is in session.

A common explanation we heard went like this: Better to use campaign money for these types of things than taxpayer money.

That’s true, but beside the point.

Of particular relevance to the BGA: there are few rules to regulate campaign spending in Illinois, and those that exist are loosely followed and enforced. What’s more, those who appear to be abusing the system are often the ones making the rules.

To say nothing about taxes – namely, are politicians supplementing their lifestyles with campaign money paying income tax?

To read more in Chicago magazine click here.