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Joe’s Time, Our Dime?

Is Berrios conducting political and personal business on government time?

Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Joseph Berrios portrays himself as a public servant who toils on behalf of taxpayers.

A review of public records, though, raises questions about whether Berrios—the Democratic nominee for the powerful post of Cook County assessor — is conducting political and personal business on government time, from his 6th floor office in the County Building.

The Better Government Association analyzed phone and visitor logs from Berrios’s office—as well as copies of his personal schedule—and found that, while on the clock for his $100,000-a-year public job, he had repeated contact with political figures, and his partner in a side lobbying business.

For his part, Berrios insisted that many of those visitors were just friends stopping by to say hello, and that “generally we leave the office if someone wants to talk politics.”

But the records—obtained by the BGA and Chicago magazine under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, and other sources—show that since early 2009:

  • Sam Panayotovich, Berrios’s partner in the Chicago lobbying firm B-P Consultants, Inc., visited Berrios’s office more than 20 times and called—or was called by—Berrios’s office at least a dozen times.
  • 1st Ward Democratic committeeman Jesse Ruben Juarez visited Berrios at least 95 times. Juarez runs a political consulting firm, JRJ Consulting, Inc., that the Berrios campaign has paid tens of thousands of dollars.
  • Maggie Winters, who works for the Cook County Democratic Party as an executive assistant to Berrios, the party chairman, visited him more than 30 times, while there were 13 phone calls back and forth between Berrios’s office and party headquarters.
  • Dominic Longo, who helps run the shadowy Coalition for Better Government and was convicted in a long-ago vote fraud case, visited Berrios. Berrios’s schedule mentions a golf outing hosted by the coalition this summer.
  • Robert Kruse, who works for Madison Appraisal LLC, has visited “Mikie”—Berrios’s secretary—more than 130 times, while Berrios’s office has exchanged calls with Madison Appraisal more than 30 times. Kruse is a political advisor and key fundraiser to Berrios.

Kruse could not be reached.

Longo declined to comment.

Winters also didn’t want to talk with a reporter, although a Democratic Party spokeswoman said Winters regularly runs mail and messages to Berrios’s county office.

Juarez said some of his visits involved Latino outreach on property taxes. Panayotovich did not return phone calls.

One former political consultant who has worked closely with Berrios said he doesn’t buy the explanation that politics is avoided in the office.

“The only reason I was ever in his office was political,” the consultant said.

Andy Shaw, executive director of the BGA, said the body of evidence certainly suggests Berrios is mixing his interests — and raises real questions about whether taxpayers are his first priority.

“The rules are pretty clear — politics should be practiced on your own time, not when you’re pulling a government salary,” Shaw said.

BACK TO MAIN STORY: Joseph Berrios »

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