State rep Annazette Collins, a Democrat from Chicago’s west side, agreed earlier this week to pay a $20,000 fine and issue an apology for filing inaccurate campaign finance reports with the state board of elections. From 2005 to 2007 Collins claimed she didn’t raise or spend a penny. Turns out both sides of the ledger were off by more than $100,000.

Collins has some company. A couple weeks ago I wrote about how 12th Ward alderman George Cardenas said he’d eschewed fund-raising, instead asking supporters to donate to charity in his honor—a maneuver that some campaign finance experts don’t think is legal. A couple of his colleagues, the 11th Ward’s James Balcer and the 35th Ward’s Rey Colon, also reported raising zilch in the first six months of 2008, while other politicians say they’ve brought in next to nothing: county commissioner Bill Beavers reported getting a meager $350, 17th Ward alderman Latasha Thomas just $600. And that’s just what I found after a quick search.

Maybe there’s a sudden movement afoot to ask potential donors to save their money for a worthy cause.

Probably not. It’s more likely sloppy record keeping or some dubious scheme. “If they’re an incumbent claiming zero contributions, it’s a red flag,” says Tony Morgando of the state board of elections’ campaign finance division. “In the city of Chicago, especially, there’s money out there.”

And the board isn’t going to catch everybody who fails to comply with reporting requirements. Every six months each of the 3,600 active political committees in Illinois is supposed to submit itemized campaign finance records; active campaigns have to file additional reports in the weeks before the election. In other words, in election years like this one the board will receive a total of about 10,000 finance reports. It has 15 people on staff to go through them all.

Morgando says they conduct a “cursory review” of each report—for example, if a committee says it transferred money to another candidate, the staff will check that candidate’s records to see if the numbers square. But that’s typically after the reports have become available for public viewing, since most are filed electronically and show up online almost immediately. And by law “deep audits” only happen when someone presents evidence of a problem.

“We operate this on an honor system, and anyone who knows anything about Illinois politics knows that probably can’t work here,” says Jim Bray, a spokesman for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, whose complaint against Collins resulted in the penalties. 

Of course, some politicians are on the opposite end of the disclosure spectrum. House speaker Michael Madigan recently reported making “contributions” to five of his legislative allies that totaled $1.29; the cash was apparently spent on highway tolls. And former state rep candidate Phillip Jackson meticulously listed the series of loans he’d received from his nonprofit education organization, for $2.16, $2.95, and $3.05.