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Bad politics has good idea for better policy

Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon's suggestion that the state comptroller should have been the one to catch the $54 million fraud in Dixon city government is as laughable as it is political. But from her absurd notion comes an idea worth considering.

On our list of people who should have detected Rita Crundwell’s $54 million larceny at some point during two decades of Dixon’s fraudulent finances, State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka doesn’t even make the top 10.

In fact, she wasn’t even on our list until Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon suggested recently that Topinka should have caught the fraud. So we figured, Why not? There’s lots of blame to go around.

But Topinka’s share of responsibility would be small, indeed.

The Crundwell caper has not been in the news lately. The story has cooled while the city of Dixon awaits a check from the sale of Crundwell’s assets and Crundwell settles in to spend the better part of the next two decades in federal prison.

So Simon’s broadside on the state comptroller’s office was unexpected – until you consider the political context.

Topinka, a one-time Republican candidate for governor, plans to seek re-election next year to a second term as comptroller.

Simon, the state’s lieutenant governor, has announced she will abandon the quickly sinking USS Governor Quinn and will be a candidate in 2014 for the Democratic nomination for comptroller.

Because Dixon’s scandal is statewide – even national – news, Simon thought she might be able to tie that anchor to Topinka.

In politics, you sometimes have to just throw mud on the wall and see what sticks. Hey, Crundwell was city comptroller, Topinka is state comptroller – gotta be something there, right?

Nice try, but nobody is buying it.

The state comptroller’s job includes ensuring that independent audits are conducted for about 8,000 units of government in Illinois, which must file their annual audits with the comptroller’s office. Asking that office to re-audit all of those financial statements is, of course, absurd.

But Simon’s attention to the matter is not totally without merit.

She suggested better online access to all those local government audits. Topinka’s office reported it already had plans to enhance its website this fall.

And maybe, Simon suggested, such frauds as Crundwell’s could be detected if audits of similar-sized local governments were compared to determine whether some have abnormally high levels of spending or indebtedness. Perhaps some changes in how local auditors must report that information to the state would make such comparisons easier.

In short, a review of the process is a good idea.

But as a political issue, it just doesn’t hold water.

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