Joseph Berrios, Candidate for Cook County Assessor: Under the Microscope

THE INSIDER: With a background as a Democratic Party boss, a lobbyist, and a powerful commissioner of a property tax appeals board, Joseph Berrios now wants to be Cook County assessor, a role that will give him even more sway in picking winners and losers among local taxpayers. Chicago magazine’s political editor—working with the Better Government Association—argues that Berrios shines as a vivid example of the clout-infested politics for which Illinois is famous

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Joseph Berrios
Joseph Berrios faces a tough November election for Cook County assessor.

 

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BOARD OF REVIEW DOCUMENTS »
Confidential transcripts from the board’s investigation

Joseph Berrios is a jovial, roly-poly Chicagoan who has spent virtually his entire adult life in politics. At 58, he can point to several heartening milestones on his resumé. In 1982, for example, he became the first Hispanic elected to the Illinois General Assembly (some fellow lawmakers assumed he’d be “wearing a sombrero and not speak English,” he recalls), and in 2007 he became the first Hispanic selected to lead the Cook County Democratic Party.

Since 1988, Berrios has served on the Cook County Board of Review, the influential yet largely invisible three-member elective panel that hears and decides appeals of tax assessments. Now he is running for county assessor, the powerful official who determines the values for all homes and commercial properties in Cook County. He won a primary election in February, and he has earned the support of many of the state’s top Democrats, from Governor Pat Quinn and House Speaker Michael Madigan to Toni Preckwinkle, the odds-on favorite to be the next Cook County Board president. (Mayor Richard M. Daley so far has not officially endorsed him.)

But Berrios also stands as a prime example of the kind of closed, self-interested politics that plagues this state. The Board of Review, where he has spent the past 22 years, is an opaque operation dominated by a tight circle of politicians and tax attorneys. During his time there, Berrios has been a stalwart opponent of efforts to take clout out of the system and make it more transparent.

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He holds a position fraught with potential conflicts—none more obvious than those relating to his second job as a Springfield lobbyist, where he presses the interests of clients in a legislature led on the House side by Michael Madigan and on the Senate side by John Cullerton. Both are property tax lawyers whose firms regularly bring appeals before Berrios and the Board of Review.

His campaign coffers reflect hefty contributions from the attorneys who appear before him, presenting more potential conflicts of interest. For example, the Chicago News Cooperative reported in The New York Times that the law firm Crane & Norcross donated more than $143,000 to Berrios over the past decade, and between 2006 and 2008 alone, the firm’s clients received $467.6 million in assessment reductions—second only to Madigan’s law firm, Madigan & Getzendanner, which won the largest total of reductions in that time, $490.4 million.

Overall, the generosity of the property tax bar raises questions about whether the county’s campaign donation limits are being ignored. (See “The Friendly Bar”) And the lawyers contribute in other ways, too: When Berrios is on the ballot, for example, it’s not uncommon to find property tax attorneys standing outside polling places passing out campaign pamphlets on his behalf, even in the frigid winter primary season. “It seems to be a clear conflict of interest to accept campaign contributions and other political assistance from lawyers with such obvious financial stakes in government decision making,” says Andy Shaw, the executive director of the Better Government Association (BGA).

The Cook County state’s attorney is investigating a possible influence-peddling case involving tax appeals that has been linked to Berrios’s office. The case centers on allegations that Paul Froehlich, a Democratic state representative from Schaumburg, worked through close associates of Berrios to win tax reductions for constituents in return for campaign donations. (See “Curious Deals”)

For many years, Berrios’s critics have said that he gives preferential treatment to politically connected favorites and to the property tax attorneys who bankroll his campaigns. Drawing on Freedom of Information Act requests and campaign finance records, an investigation by Chicago and the BGA shows that Berrios has met in his office with property tax lawyers who have soon after contributed to his campaign funds. Two sources have described for Chicago how Berrios takes advantage of the loose board procedures to operate independently in some instances, without the expected board checks.

Berrios insists that money and politics have no bearing on his rulings and that neither he nor anybody on his staff plays favorites. “I don’t care who you are or where you’re from,” he says. “I judge each case only on its merits.”

Berrios receives far more in donations than Larry Rogers Jr. and Brendan Houlihan, the other two board commissioners. Since 2007, the first year that the current commissioners served together, Berrios has raked in more than $2 million, the majority coming from property tax attorneys. By comparison, Rogers has collected about $685,000, while Houlihan has raised just $500,000.

Why the big disparity when the commissioners are equally powerful? John K. Norris, a lawyer and a lobbyist for the Illinois Property Tax Lawyers Association, says, “It’s not because Joe Berrios is necessarily the better of the three [commissioners]. Joe Berrios has been around for a number of years. He has always been taxpayer friendly, and when I say ‘taxpayer friendly,’ I don’t mean that he’s favoring just tax attorneys who handle big commercial cases. His office tends to give reductions to everybody.”

Perhaps the Berrios friendliness reflects his warm relations at work. Though he has campaigned on a promise to cut patronage from the assessor’s office, the employee roster of the Board of Review reads like the invitation list to a Berrios family reunion: His son, Joseph, is a computer operator at the board. Berrios’s sister Carmen works there, too. So do two sisters-in-law and a brother-in-law. A daughter, Vanessa, already works at the assessor’s office.

In short, Berrios is a consummate insider in Illinois politics, a member of the fraternity of the well connected who are in positions to manage the system to their advantage—but not necessarily yours.

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Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo by Antonio Perez

 

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4 years ago
Posted by JigsUp

First-rate article! Joe Berrios and his cronies on the Board of Review are the most ham-handed, money-grubbing, corrupt political hacks to come down the pike since Bath House John Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna. Three million dollars in contributions - mostly from property tax lawyers, five committees to shuffle the money, property-tax outreaches published on his campaign website, and property tax lawyers lining up to pay to play ---- but, according to Joe, he's for the little guy - John and Jane Q. Homeowner----Bilgewater!!

Despite the protestations of Berrios' lawyer, the whole operation looks like a case study in RICO. Berrios and the other co-conspirators at the BoR have been milking property-tax lawyers, bilking homeowners, and lining their campaign war chests to make sure they stay on the gravy train. Every property-tax lawyer knows that tribute to Berrios, etal., must be paid if they are to stay in the business - the bigger the contribution, the bigger the assessment reduction! The incestous relationship between Berrios, Madigan and virtually the entire property-tax bar is racketeering at its most base level.

At long last, however, the federal lawsuit against Berrios and his cronies and toadies may bring down the corrupt house-of-cards. It may do to the corrupt property-tax assessment v campaign contribution scheme what Berrios' gastric band is designed to do to his caloric intake ----------- shut it down!!!

Finally, John Norris is dead wrong! If there is a law which limits his - and similarly situated, bottom-feeding property-tax attorneys - contributions to BoR commissioners based on what his income from interaction with the BoR, then it is the public's business how much he is raking in. If it is more than $10,000, he is limited in his tributes to Joe, Larry and Houlie. Norris and the rest of those suckling at the teat of the BoR need to file the disclosures and come clean.

The problem is that Berrios is just the Capo de Tutti Capi among the commissioners. Co-conspirator Larry Rogers Jr., is the guy representing a client suing the same county from which he (Rogers Jr.) extracts $ 100k in salary - no appearance of conflict there!! - for a position from which he has leveraged $500K in tribute from those appearing before him. Between Rogers Jr. and Berrios, corruption, conflict of interest and sleaze has been elevated to an artform.

4 years ago
Posted by lizdeksic

Would it be possible to create a color coded map of Cook County that related PIN numbers to tax rates? I have regularly appealed my taxes and will be going in front of the Board of Review yet again as a private citizen (my home's assessed value jumped 42%) and as anyone knows who has been through the process there is no rhyme or reason for many assessed valuations. There would have to be a way to mine this data and tie it to a GoogleMap type display so as to better see anomalies.

And there are anomalies. Remember when Luis Guitierrz's was "accidentally" paying taxes as if his two lots were empty lots? That would not have come to light if the property was not listed in his own name. He and Maldonado (see The Chicago Reader, Aug 19, 2009) are fairly new to the game and didn't learn how to play the game at their daddy's knee like the Daley bunch.

Would any local media care to take a crack at this and let the chips fall where they may?

4 years ago
Posted by Brad Reed

Actually, I think Larry Rogers Jr. has taken almost a $1,000,000 in campaign contributions from lawyers that practice before him as County Commissioner. Then he is suing the County, he gets paid $100,000 from the COunty and he said to the Sun-Times that he sees "no conflict of interest." !!! Why do we elect these scumbags?!

4 years ago
Posted by Brad Reed

Larry Rogers is suing the County for millions of dollars on behalf of the family of the victim of hit and run (the driver was observed to have been being chased by the Sheriff's office)...that is because while working as County Commissioner on the Board of Review, and taking a salary of $100,000 and getting to fill his personal campaign coffers with almost a $1,000,000 from the real estate tax lawyers that appear before him (no, no pay for pay there!)---he is also working for his dad's ambulance chasing PI firm. Nice work if you can get it I guess!

4 years ago
Posted by Vinny

No Joe needs to retire and play with all his money that he did not save for us tax payers!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

4 years ago
Posted by taxpayer

This is what's great about the real estate tax: most of the information is public so we can see where the sleaze is. There's plenty of sleaze with other taxes, but it's hidden.

I hope next month the magazine plans to report on the other three candidates. Green Party's Bob Grota is actually a professional assessor, who has run a multi-county assessment operation and has plans to make the operation more honest and efficient.

4 years ago
Posted by DTR

As to your evidence lacking and baseless indictment of the Cook County Board of Review for unfairly shifting millions of dollars in the tax burden from commercial properties to residential homeowners, let’s be clear: Cook County Assessors have demonstrated a well known bias toward the assessed values of homes for many years, in total disregard of actual market values, resulting in a decades-long shift in the tax burden from homeowners to commercial and industrial property owners. The long term effect of that bias was to cause business owners to pay property taxes based upon 75-80% of the market values of their properties, whereas the Cook County Classification Ordinance, until recently, called for levels of assessment equal to just 36% of market value for industrial properties and 38% for commercial properties.
Furthermore, if any one action is responsible for a possible shift in the property tax burden to homeowners this year, it was Claypool’s and Assessor Jim Houlihan’s high pressure efforts to get the Cook County Board to enact revisions of the Cook County Classification Ordinance commencing in 2009. The plan was ill-conceived, over-simplified and untested. Nonetheless, Claypool and Houlihan were so anxious to force these revisions through the County Board that they refused to wait for the Board to complete its own study of the proposals. That study, upon completion, would have warned against the impact of all the appeals that would be generated due to Claypool and Houlihan failing to consider the ramifications of their own deceptively “simple” revisions. Those changes have been the direct cause of the unprecedented number of assessment appeals being filed at the Board. These poorly considered revisions, coupled with the refusal of the Assessor to adhere to his own new standards when reviewing taxpayer appeals, have been the major reason for the record number of cases (436,000) now confronting the Board of Review, and will be the main cause for any increase in the tax burden to homeowners this year. The massive amount of appeals was predictable, but in his capacity as the chief sponsor of the proposal, Claypool obviously did not understand his own proposal or just did not care about its consequences. So why not place the blame where it really belongs – at the feet of Forrest Claypool and Jim Houlihan?
While Berrios can do no good in the eyes of the media, more importantly, homeowners need to protect themselves from the exploits of Claypool, which will cost them more in property taxes this year as a result of his misguided actions as a Commissioner of the Cook County Board.


Donald T. Rubin

4 years ago
Posted by Colonel

Great job by the BGA etc, BUT does anyone think Berrios is any different than Blago, Michael Madigan, John Cullerton, a bunch of the aldermen or the other big politically connected insiders who run this city, county and state? Let's not be naive, Berrios, like Stroger may be the faces of corruption and fixes, but they are just so many cogs in a giant, corrupt machine! If the voters won't dump the machine insiders, then they have no room to complain.

4 years ago
Posted by ozlock

Before getting to the substance: why do people insist on putting accents on foreign words, especially when the word is the same in English?

The word resume, as in c.v, has two accents, not one. Ive not seen one example where one might confuse the noun for the verb.

4 years ago
Posted by citizen1

Illinois is such a bag of political scum in state and Chicago government that it simply defies all imagination. How could any state be more openly corrupt? Lawyers such as Mike Madigan, John Cullerton and Ed Burke have become incredibly wealthy and wield unlimited power as a result of their trading of influence. Burkes's wife even becams a Supreme Court Judge. Do not ask about her qualifications or whether there were innumerable more qualified candidates. Illinois and our entire political system needs a system in which campaign contributions are entirely anonymous. Payments could be made to a central clearinghouse and then disseminated according to a separate direction by the contributor. Similar to voting, no one would know to whom you contributed. It would protect the contributor, the politician and the public. I see no end to the corruption and my wife and I, who were born and have lived in Illinois for decades, are moving when she retires. Illinois increases our blood pressure too much by just reading the newspapers.

4 years ago
Posted by Chicago Louie

You're a disgrace to all hard-working Hispanics Barrios. But like all crooks, the clock on your trial and sentencing is ticking...

3 years ago
Posted by YouDirtyRats

You are a dirty RAT, taking away a good percent of the Illinois Homeowners Exemption therefore increasing our property taxes exhorbantly. It would be oh so nice to see the day you would loose sleep because you have to scramble to find ways to pay FOR over a $1,000.00 increase on your property taxes. By the way I live in a very modest size home. My property taxes now consume 1/4 of my fixed retirement income(which is small) You DIRTY RAT!
The Democrats, what is the saying they are for the little guy? These New Democrats are nothing but Socialists for themselves, the unions and teachers! YOU DIRTY RATS!

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