The former head of the state’s Veterans’ Affairs office used her political campaign fund to write two checks totaling $50,000 to her mother last month, a move state elections officials say could be a violation of state election laws.

Linda Chapa LaVia said the checks — logged as January expenditures in her required campaign filings — were to repay a loan her mother made to help her start her political career about two decades ago.

But records at the Illinois State Board of Elections show her campaign made no disclosure of a loan to her committee, launched ahead of her successful campaign to become a Democrat state representative from Aurora in 2003. It also does not show up in the original documents creating her political fundraising committee.

State elections officials said failure to report that income accurately is a violation of the state’s campaign disclosure laws. After communication with elections officials following the BGA’s inquiries, LaVia returned the $50,000 to her campaign account Feb. 18, records show.

LaVia described the campaign snafu as an oversight.

“A lot of paperwork got lost in translation from one account to another and working on a full-blown campaign,” said LaVia, who was appointed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker to head the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs in 2019.

“I’m trying to reconcile everything,” she said. “If mistakes were made in the past, a lot of it wasn’t my doing.”

LaVia said the logistics of her campaign at the time were run by the political operation of then-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who resigned last year amid a federal corruption investigation. Madigan did not return requests for comment.

“Between me opening my account and the speaker going into the account and taking it all over, I don’t even know” how the loan was never reported, she said, adding Madigan operatives handled everything. “You’re the candidate, and that’s all you’re doing.”

LaVia resigned as head of Veterans’ Affairs in January 2021 following reports of dozens of veteran deaths at state nursing homes with lax COVID-19 protocols.

Officials at the board of elections, the state agency in charge of investigating campaign disclosure violations and issuing discipline, said they are in communication with LaVia in attempts to resolve the issue.

“We don’t know where this goes from here,” said Matt Dietrich of the state elections board. He said he cannot recall a time in which a former politician was fined or rebuked for improperly using funds in their campaign accounts.

“This is the first time, that we can recall, where we’ve had this circumstance of a loan made to a committee, it being repaid after the fact, but it was never accounted for throughout the committee’s history,” Dietrich said.

LaVia has filed a new document — called an A1 — to clear up what she said was a paperwork mistake.

Reformers Decry Lax Laws

Election reform groups have long advocated for disclosure laws with more teeth.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” said Jay Young, executive director of Common Cause Illinois, who has advocated for laws to mirror state’s such as California, where officials “go deep into all manner of contributions, loans and how those dollars are coming in and going out the door.

“We obviously didn’t get that here,” he said. “There’s not much risk of enforcement and kind of a slap on the wrist if you get caught.”

A review of board of elections records shows more than 150 campaign disclosure complaints filed since Jan. 1, 2017.

He said the board has issued fines to some officials who failed to file campaign disclosure reports or amendments within the statutory time frame required. Dietrich said in addition to investigating complaints, the board’s Division of Campaign Disclosure also conducts random audits of up to 3% of all campaign accounts every year.

Although enforcement against candidates for improperly spending their campaign funds is rare, one notable example came in 2016, when former Illinois State Rep. Frank Mautino — now Pritzker’s auditor general — used $250,000 in campaign funds for fuel and repairs to his personal cars. He said he and his associates were using the cars for campaign work.

After a process that bounced from the board to the courts to the Illinois Supreme Court and back to the board, state election officials decided not to pursue discipline against Mautino.

Under state law, former elected officials can keep their campaign accounts open indefinitely, Dietrich said.

A look at the campaign accounts of former elected officials amount to millions of dollars, and the law restricts use of all campaign funds to political activity. Notable examples of former officials with accounts still open include Madigan, former Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, former Gov. Jim Edgar — who now uses his fund to support candidates and policy ideas — as well as former Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

“There are so many political committees, and it’s not realistic to go through all of them with a fine-tooth comb,” said Alisa Kaplan, executive director of Reform for Illinois. “But it needs to audit enough of them to deter wrongdoing. And in enforcement, the board needs to provide enough leeway for some honest or trivial mistakes, so as not to prevent good candidates from reaching  public office, while still sending a message that people have to follow the rules.”
Kaplan and Young pointed to laws elsewhere, such as those in New York City, with more proactive disclosure rules.
“We have to overhaul [and] replace what I would say is very weak and limited disclosure forms,” Young said. “There are other options; this isn’t rocket science; we can just duplicate what is being done — what is working well — in other states.”

‘My Political Days Are Over’

The $50,000 LaVia paid to her mother, Mary Lou Chapa, first showed up in a Jan. 17 campaign filing as two $25,000 “principal” payments. In her filing, LaVia said the payments were a reimbursement for a “startup loan for campaign from 04/01/2003. Previously reported as contributions.”

She said her accountant is working with the board of elections to try to document the loan, and she has provided bank records from 2001 through 2003 to help reconcile the problem.

When LaVia and her team opened her committee in 2001, it should’ve reported the $50,000 loan. But instead, the fund’s balance at its creation showed up as zero dollars, Dietrich said.

“At minimum, they’ll have to file a letter explaining all of this; then there are other possibilities that our disclosure division is looking into now as to how to handle this,” he said. “They may have to file 20-plus years of amended reports to account for this $50,000 that’s missing.

“If what they’re telling us is true, there should’ve been an extra $50,000 balance on all of those reports,” Dietrich said. “That money was never showed as being held by the committee.”

The board of elections has recommended LaVia do two things: Get an accountant, and do as thorough an audit of the committee’s finances as possible; and amend the committee’s quarterly reports as far back as they can be amended.

The former state representative’s campaign committee could face a fine for the late filing of its statement of organization, said Dietrich, adding the board has not yet received a formal complaint on the matter.

“Every business day between when they received the loan and when they formed the committee would be a $50 fine up to $5,000,” Dietrich said. “Did she give it in October of 2001, in which case 60 days before the committee was organized? We just don’t know. … If there’s no paperwork, then I’m not quite sure how we could calculate that fine.”

Loaning a committee money isn’t prohibited under state law, nor is it prohibited to give a loan to a family member’s campaign fund — but not reporting it is.

A review of campaign finance records shows LaVia did report two other campaign loans in 2002 totaling $35,000 from her mother and her mother’s realty company. Her campaign records indicate those loans were repaid within months. 

LaVia said she plans to close the fund and make sure “all paperwork is submitted properly.”

“You may wish you’d done X, Y or Z or had more insight into what was going on, but you don’t because you’re told to be a candidate,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re working with the board and only close the account properly once this is figured out.”

LaVia said she has no further need for a campaign fund: “My political days are over.”

Rachel Hinton was an investigative enterprise reporter at the Illinois Answers Project from 2022 to 2023.