WASHINGTON -- Patrick Quinn, the treasurer of Illinois, is pulling a fast one on his state's taxpayers.

Last week Quinn struck a pose as the workers' white knight doing battle with shady underwriting deals when he suspended Merrill Lynch & Co. from doing business with his office.

Quinn did raise a legitimate point, saying that ongoing investigations into Merrill Lynch by the Securities and Exchange Commission and other federal agencies caused him "to question the suitability of your firm as a business partner of the state of Illinois."

Quinn's office is only in charge of investing state funds, not issuing bonds, but he certainly would be negligent if he didn't make sure that Merrill could be trusted with any funds he might invest with the firm.

He also appeared to be looking after workers in his state when he questioned the lar pcices of Pony Express. The courier company, owned by a Chicago-based firm in which Merrill Lynch has a minority interest, refuses to negotiate a labor contract with its employees.

But the public interest has nothing to do with Quinn's stand.

Illinois' treasurer is pandering to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which over the past few months has been pressuring the 50 states and more than 100 cities to suspend their business with Merrill. The Teamsters want to strong-arm the firm into intervening in the union's labor dispute with Pony Express.

Quinn's questions about market conduct and labor practices were just a red herring.

What Quinn was really doing was trying to win a desperately needed endorsement from the Teamsters in his race for Illinois secretary of state against the incumbent Republican, George Ryan.

His actions are hardly in the best interests of the taxpayers of the state.

During the last year, Quinn's office invested $1.15 billion of state funds in Merrill Lynch commercial paper and $35 million in Treasury notes and bills sold by Merrill, presumably because those investments offered the best deal for the state.

By suspending his office's business with Merrill, Quinn is risking getting less return on the state's funds.

He's playing politics, not managing the state's finances. The taxpayers of Illinois deserve better representation than that.

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