A fundraising machine, Joe Berrios has five personal political funds, not including the one for the Cook County Democratic Party, which he also controls. He has pocketed more than $3 million in political contributions over the past decade—a good haul for a down-ballot politician in an office that a lot of people have never heard of. His daughter Maria Antonia “Toni” Berrios, a Democratic state representative, has a fund, too, bolstered by contributions from many of the same property tax lawyers who give to her father.
Several of the funds are decades old but remain active. Friends of Berrios, for instance, was originally set up in 1988 when he contemplated running for a spot on the Metropolitan Sanitary District, later renamed the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. Berrios never did run for the office, but as of August the fund contained $202,313. Why keep it active? “I just never closed it,” he says, adding, “There’s nothing to hide. Anyone who wants to look up what Joe Berrios collected can go on the Internet, and it’s all there.”
Whether intended or not, one result of the multiple funds is to complicate the tracking of fundraising, which is significant because Cook County’s ethics law limits the amount of money that Board of Review commissioners can collect from lawyers who practice before the agency. The ordinance, passed in July 2007, applies to any property tax attorney (or law firm) who earns more than $10,000 in legal fees per year from business before the board or the assessor’s office. Currently the campaign donation limit is $750 in non-election years and $1,500 in election years. (Until last year, the limits were $1,500 and $3,000, respectively.)
Mike Quigley, the congressman who sponsored the 2007 ordinance when he served on the county board, says the measure was intended to curb the disturbingly close ties between the commissioners and the lawyers who seek reductions from the board. To Quigley, “the appearance [of pay to play] alone creates a problem.”
An analysis of Berrios’s campaign finance reports by Chicago and the Better Government Association found that a number of lawyers and firms give more than the limit—at least 23 by our count so far in 2010. And in 2008 (the only full year the previous ordinance was in effect) the figure was 11 or 32, depending on how strictly the rules are interpreted.
It’s not clear, however, which—if any—of these lawyers and firms earned beyond the $10,000 threshold and hence violated the ordinance. Therein lies the problem.
There is no realistic way for the Cook County Board of Ethics, which is tasked with enforcing the rules, to know how much these lawyers are getting paid by their clients. April Williams, the chief investigator at the ethics board, says the board looks for potential violators by checking campaign contributions against a list of county contractors who have received $10,000 in payments from the county in a year. The list is compiled by the county comptroller’s office. But the attorneys who practice before the Board of Review aren’t paid directly by the county government—they are paid by their clients. Hence they don’t show up on the comptroller’s list.
But logic suggests that, given the substantial amounts of assessment reductions that attorneys win for their clients and the traditional legal-fee structures, the level is routinely exceeded. According to attorneys who specialize in property tax appeals, many of the lawyers who handle such cases work on a contingency basis—generally taking a fee equal to one-third of the taxpayer’s first year’s tax savings. Thus, if a lawyer gets an assessment reduction for a client that cuts taxes by $10,000, the lawyer would get a check for around $3,333.
Still, MaryNic Foster, the executive director of the ethics board, says that since there is no enforceable reporting requirement for the attorneys, the ethics board’s hands are tied. “There is no straightforward way to check to see if [the attorneys] are in compliance,” she says.
What’s more, it’s unclear what punishment the attorneys would face even if they were caught. While regular county vendors who violate the do-nation limits are banned from future contracts, Foster says that as far as she knows, attorneys who donate above the limits would not get barred from appearing before the Board of Review.
Foster allows that the current ordinance has many gray areas that she would like to see cleared up. “Right now we’re stuck enforcing the provision as it’s drafted,” she says. “The ordinance should have more teeth.”
Berrios isn’t required to self-police his donors. The attorneys (or their firms) are supposed to file disclosure statements with the comptroller’s office and the county’s ethics board. None do, according to Williams. “We are going on the honesty of the attorneys,” she says.
The ordinance also requires the Board of Review to notify—in writing—any attorney who appears before it of the campaign contribution limits. The board doesn’t do so, according to a board insider.
Some attorneys claim that it’s none of the county’s business how much they earn in appeals fees, asserting the attorney-client privilege. “What I make as an attorney—I don’t think it’s anyone’s business,” says John Norris, of Rubin & Norris, a prominent downtown property tax appeal firm. “It’s between me and the clients and nobody else’s business.”
Berrios says that it’s unfair that the ethics ordinance singles out the lawyers who practice before the Board of Review. “If you’re gonna put a cap on what people can give, make it fair across the board. The law stinks, bottom line.”