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