Bloom Trail High School donated to the South Chicago Heights mayor's political campaign fund for the last four years, according to State Board of Elections records, giving at least $200 to "Citizens for Dave Owen" every January since 2008.
This year, the amount increased to $250.
Bloom Township High School District 206 Supt. Glen Giannetti told Patch he made the contributions to "Citizens for Dave Owen" on behalf of the district administration, pulling the cash from the quarters and dollars teen-agers and faculty deposit into the high school vending machines.
"We buy their smoker tickets," Giannetti said. "I usually buy two tickets from Mr. Owen because he is an advocate for District 206."
The men's only "smoker" is an annual fundraiser, at which guests receive "a steak dinner, drinks, cocktails and a chance to win $3,000," according to Owen. Every tenth guest also receives $100.
Giannetti said the fundraiser donations are not taxpayer dollars. He also said the campaign money isn't actually donated by Bloom Trail High School—even though that's the donor name listed in State Board of Elections records. Giannetti said the donations come from the office of the superintendent.
"I don’t even go. I just buy the tickets," Giannetti said. "But it’s definitely not taxpayers' money. We would never use taxpayer money to support political regimes."
Legal authorities and a campaign finance advocate say these donations are highly suspect, yet differ on whether vending machine revenue is considered "public funds" under state statute.
Giannetti may have broken the law if the money is considered "public funds."
Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Karyn Stratton said there are questions here that must be answered.
"The first thing you have to know is who owns the pop machines. Is there a contract with the school district? It also matters what the contract says as far as any kind of plot on the funds," Stratton said.
Stratton said if the district is indeed making money from the pop machines, that money is meant for the public.
"They say they’re not taxpayer funds," Stratton said, "but income to a school district is still public funds."
Pop Money vs. Taxpayer Money
District 206 has had a vending machine contract with Pepsi since 2006, making between $14,000 and $17,000 in net revenue each year from machines used by students and faculty, according to the school district's state budget documents.
Giannetti said the money being contributed to Citizens for Dave Owen is from a fund that's separate from taxpayer funds.
"The money that is accrued is in the discretionary areas of the superintendent," Giannetti said in an e-mail. "I bargain with the companies on what percentages of money they will return to the district. ... We use it for numerous entities that are in the district and some that are not."
Giannetti said he spends plenty of the money on students.
"I give a little to the chess club, to the Mathletes, to the transition kids out at Bloom Trail. It's incentive money to help keep the students on track."
Mark Greven, legal counsel for the State Board of Elections, said Giannetti's and Owen's actions are unusual.
He's not sure they're illegal, however.
"I don’t see any direct election code violation," Greven said, pointing to the fact Giannetti used pop-machine money as being a key element. "It would be one thing if they were general funds appropriated by the state government, but they’re not."
Greven said the only law Giannetti could be violating is Illinois State Election Code, Sec. 9-25.1, which states:
No public funds shall be used to urge any elector to vote for or against any candidate or proposition, or be appropriated for political or campaign purposes to any candidate or political organization.
But the same section defines "public funds" as "any funds appropriated by the Illinois General Assembly or by any political subdivision of the State of Illinois."
Quarters and dollars from a pop machine don't fit that definition, although Greven said he still has plenty of questions for Giannetti and Owen.
"I can’t imagine any scenario where a school district would want to list themselves as a contributor to a political campaign," Greven said. "An argument could be made that the revenue is revenue that belongs to a government entity, and that the revenue is being used to help fund a political campaign."
Why Donations May Be Illegal
David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, believes Giannetti has broken the law.
"It’s illegal," said Morrison, "if (the money) was generated on school property for school resources. You cannot use that money on candidates. You cannot use public resources for political resources."
Morrison cited Section 5-15 of the 2003 Illinois Ethics Act, which reveals several political activities state employees are prohibited to do on State time, including:
Soliciting contributions, including but not limited to the purchase of, selling, distributing, or receiving payment for tickets for any political fundraiser, political meeting, or other political event.
Later, in the same section of the Act, the State prohibits employees from "making contributions on behalf of any candidate for elective office in that capacity or in connection with a campaign for elective office."
Perhaps a school district superintendent isn't considered a state employee, but the district is a government entity, and Sec. 70-5 of the Act accounts for that as well, stating:
Within 6 months after the effective date of this Act, each governmental entity other than a community college district, and each community college district within 6 months after the effective date of this amendatory Act of the 95th General Assembly, shall adopt an ordinance or resolution that regulates, in a manner no less restrictive than Section 5‑15 and Article 10 of this Act, (i) the political activities of officers and employees of the governmental entity and (ii) the soliciting and accepting of gifts by and the offering and making of gifts to officers and employees of the governmental entity.
Morrison said he believes vending-machine profits should be considered "public funds."
"If (the vending machines) are plugged into the school’s outlet, if the license from the bottling company is through the school, those are public funds," Morrison said.
You Scratch My Back ...
Owen admitted to having a friendship with Giannetti, through his son as well as through former South Chicago Heights Mayor Donald Prisco.
“I’ve known Glen for years," Owen said. "My son played basketball for him. I certainly knew him from the last mayor. His wife is Prisco’s daughter. I can’t remember if I went to the wedding or not.”
Asked if he found it strange that records showed Bloom Trail High School had been sending him campaign money, Owen gave a simple answer.
"I don’t even see the checks when they come in," Owen said, adding that he does not handle that aspect of the campaign.
Owen also said he couldn't be sure whether Giannetti regularly attends the smoker. “I have like 20 ticket sellers," Owen added. "They see the people. We just mail the tickets to certain people who have bought them in the past. I don’t know if they come or not."
Giannetti said part of the reason he's been contributing to Owen's political campaign is payback for South Chicago Heights providing a service to Bloom Trail.
"The reason why Mayor Owen is receiving that money is we’re actually running Chicago water to Bloom Trail through South Chicago Heights," Giannetti said. "Now, even though they (South Chicago Heights) make money from that, it just shows how he’s an advocate for us."
But campaign money is the wrong way to return a favor, according to Morrison.
"A lot of times we hear, ‘They did something for me,’ so I felt obligated to do something for them," Morrison said. "But you cannot use money generated for the school district to support candidates."
The Crime of Bad Judgment
According to Illinois State Election Code, a single violation of Sec. 9-25.1 is a Class B misdemeanor. Multiple offenses are classified as a Class A misdemeanor.
An official from the Illinois Attorney General's office also cited Election Code Sec. 9-25.1 as the possible violation, but said an accurate assessment couldn't be made based on what's known.
Regardless, Greven said he's never seen a political campaign list a school district as a contributor.
"I think what’s going on here is some poor judgment," Greven said. "I have a bad taste when it comes to a school district taking money from any source and using it for a political contribution."
Giannetti insists the school pop machine money is free and clear for the administration to dole out as it sees fit.
"The money is on the grounds of being discretionary," the superintendent said. "We won’t pay salaries, we won’t just give cash to anyone, we use this money for those who put our district on a pedestal. ... The money is in a separate fund and we use it for incentives."
"I cannot comprehend the problem."