by Ray Long, Chicago Tribune, and Jason Grotto, ProPublica
Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios is facing $41,000 in fines for failing to return campaign contributions from property tax appeals lawyers whose donations exceeded legal limits, according to a pair of new rulings by the county ethics board.
The rulings raise the level of scrutiny on campaign contributions given by appeals lawyers to Berrios, who doubles as chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party and depends heavily on their donations in raising political funds. The action also ignites another high-profile showdown with the county Board of Ethics, with which he previously clashed over nepotism issues.
At the center of the ethics board’s rulings is a 2016 county ordinance stating that donors who seek “official action” with the county may contribute no more than $750 in nonelection years. Attorneys for Berrios are seeking to overturn the rulings, arguing that the county limits are unconstitutional and that higher limits set by state law should apply, among other objections.
The fines add to the controversy surrounding Berrios, who is heading into a March primary as he bids for a third four-year term as assessor.
Berrios has been under fire for inaccurate assessments that favor the wealthy over the poor since the Tribune published “The Tax Divide,” an investigation launched in June and continued in December in collaboration with ProPublica Illinois. Federal court monitors also have criticized Berrios for being too slow to erase politics from hiring and other employment decisions as required under the anti-patronage Shakman decree.
In rulings released late Monday, the ethics board listed 30 examples of property tax attorneys or firms whose donations to Berrios’ main political fund in late 2016 or early 2017 exceeded the $750 limit. It fined Berrios and the Committee to Elect Joseph Berrios Cook County Assessor $1,000 for each violation, for a total of $30,000. The $1,000 fine per violation is the maximum allowed.
An additional $11,000 in fines were imposed on Berrios and his 31st Ward Democratic Organization, the source of his main power base.
The ethics board said the 41 donations to Berrios’ political funds exceeded the limit by a total of $62,250 — an excess of $52,200 for the assessor’s election fund and $10,050 for the 31st Ward fund.
Some contributions flagged by the ethics board came from the county’s most active tax appeal attorneys and firms.
Among them was a $1,500 contribution made by Michael Crane of Crane and Norcross, which filed appeals on nearly $7.9 billion in commercial and industrial initial values since Berrios took office in December 2010, winning reductions on $1.8 billion, according to a ProPublica Illinois-Tribune analysis of county appeals data.
Thomas Tully, a former Cook County assessor now with Thomas M. Tully & Associates, contributed $5,000 to Berrios in the fourth quarter of 2016. The Tully law firm filed appeals on about $2.9 billion in commercial and industrial value since Berrios took office, winning reductions on $756 million.
Crane and Tully did not respond to requests for comment.
The rulings, based on an October 2016 ordinance, appear to be the first to impose fines regarding campaign contributions from attorneys who represent clients before the assessor’s office.
Attorney Kevin Forde, who said he was asked to represent Berrios as a special assistant state’s attorney, said Tuesday that the Berrios campaign funds had returned “over a dozen contributions” from the same time period as the ones now in dispute. Those donations generally came from county vendors, not lawyers representing clients before county government, he said.
Arguing on Berrios’ behalf at a Monday board hearing, Forde challenged the authority of county officials to set contribution limits that are stricter than those permitted by state law. The state currently allows $5,600 in contributions from individuals per election.
“There is a good-faith attempt by (Berrios) and the people who made the contributions to rely on state law and the validity and controlling authority of the state ethics statute,” Forde said.
The ethics board rejected that argument, saying Cook County’s home-rule powers give the county authority to set its own limits. The questions of constitutionality and jurisdiction raised by Berrios are “impossible to square” with prior Illinois Supreme Court decisions, the board wrote in its rulings.
Berrios’ campaign manager, Mario Lopez, echoed Forde’s legal objections, saying “every contribution received by the assessor’s campaign complies” with state law.
“Attempts by the county ordinance to limit the rights of contributors are invalid,” Lopez said in a statement. “Assessor Berrios is not personally wealthy so he must rely on campaign contributions from supporters.”
The issue is further complicated because Berrios challenger Fritz Kaegi has put enough of his own money into his campaign to remove the state’s contribution limits. To date, Kaegi has loaned himself $560,000, records show.
“We intend to supply further evidence that there was no violation of the election law by accepting any contributions,” said Lopez, who predicted Berrios would prevail on a motion for the ethics board to reconsider its rulings.
A memorandum prepared by Berrios’ team and given to the board Monday lays out numerous objections.
To bolster the position that the county ordinance is invalid, the memo said the statewide contribution limits were put in place to “ensure people with an incentive to curry favor or buy influence with elected officials are prevented from doing so.”
The memo also noted that a delegate to the state’s constitutional convention had argued that election laws “seem to fall entirely within the jurisdiction of the legislature rather than that of home rule units or their voters.”
Even so, various home-rule communities, including the city of Chicago, have placed their own limits on campaign contributions from vendors with which they do business.
Forde also argued that the county ethics ordinance would hinder the right of a citizen to retain the lawyer he or she wishes. “If an attorney made a campaign contribution in excess of the limits” set forth in the county ethics ordinance, “that attorney may have no choice but to decline to take a client’s property tax appeal,” the memo stated.
The memo even challenges whether the county ordinance should apply to contributions from lawyers, saying the attorneys represent “individual taxpayers who are seeking to appeal a tax assessment.”
“They serve as legal representatives of taxpayers who are seeking to enforce the constitutional rights of their clients to fair and uniform assessments,” the memorandum said.
It’s not the first time Berrios will have challenged an ethics board decision. In 2012, the board fined Berrios $10,000 for violating county nepotism rules by hiring his sister and son to work in his office.
After Berrios filed a legal challenge, a judge ruled in 2015 that the assessor had to comply with the county’s ethics ordinance but that the ordinance did not authorize the board to impose fines. County commissioners later gave the board the power to levy fines. Berrios’ son no longer works in the assessor’s office.
Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia commended the ethics board’s actions on contributions from tax appeals attorneys.
“These contributions look bad,” he said. “They appear to the average person as pay-to-play activity.”
Garcia, who is running for Congress, also pointed to the growing list of legal battles Berrios has fought with the ethics board and the county’s inspector general.
“Joe Berrios always seems to be fighting our ethics agencies in Cook County, and it’s taxpayers who end up paying the expensive legal bills,” Garcia said.
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