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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Board of Review probe centers on Joe Berrios’s office

Cook County campaign contribution limits to Board of Review commissioners
are not being enforced

Is Joe Berrios conducting political and personal business on government time?

Confidential transcripts from the board’s investigation

First: a brief civics lesson on tax assessments. (Sorry, I know this is boring, but the tax system is incredibly important—affecting everything from those property tax bills that homeowners get twice a year to the number of cops on the corners and teachers in the schools.)

In Cook County, the assessor’s office sets the valuation for tax purposes for all parcels of land in the county—roughly 1.8 million units. One-third of the county is reassessed each year. Basically, property values are determined by comparing similar properties in the same neighborhood and recent sales prices. If taxpayers think the assessor has overvalued their property, they can either ask the assessor’s office to reconsider or appeal the matter to the Board of Review. (Property owners who still aren’t satisfied can further appeal to either the circuit court or the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board.)

The process at the Board of Review works something like this: The three commissioners act, in effect, like judges. But because of the enormous volume of work—typically 200,000-plus appeals are filed every year—each commissioner has a staff, including a deputy commissioner and a crew of analysts, clerks, and hearing officers, to assist in making rulings. At least two commissioners—or authorized members of their staffs—must sign off on every board decision.

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Berrios often cites the board’s administrative checks and balances as a shield against charges of favoritism. “I’m one voice out of three at the board,” he told me in a recent interview. “Everything is set up so that no one commissioner can make a decision on any case whatsoever.”

In practice, however, because of the heavy workload, the second approval is somewhat perfunctory—commissioners and their staffers often do little more than rubber-stamp the first evaluation. (Public hearings are held in only about 20 percent of the cases; the rest are handled internally.)

What’s more, the commissioners and their subordinates have a lot of discretion. Assessing properties is as much an art as a science, and a slight tweak in the numbers can save a property owner thousands, sometimes millions, in tax dollars. “I’ve seen Joe Berrios just lop $100,000 off here, another $100,000 there, no rhyme or reason to it,” says a current board insider. “He’s learned over the years here that, as long as he can make the math work in some crazy, random way, he can do whatever he wants.”

One last important point: Anytime the Board of Review lowers one property’s assessed valuation, the tax burden gets shifted from that property to all the others. In other words, when a downtown office building gets its assessment dropped, lowering its tax by $1 million a year, that lost money must be made up by other property owners. The reductions quickly add up. In the 2008 tax year—the last year for which figures are available—the board granted more than $2 billion in assessment cuts, about 2.8 percent of Cook County’s total assessment of $72 billion. The assessor’s office granted another $2 billion in cuts, bringing the total to more than $4 billion, which was ultimately shifted among taxpayers. That burden seems to fall heavily on homeowners: A few years back, the Chicago Tribune found that commercial and industrial properties received $7.75 in breaks for every $1 homeowners received.

“The firepower that’s produced by the big-money interests and the commercial property owners—it’s just completely unbalanced,” says Don Haider, a property finance expert and professor at Northwestern University. “In the last couple of years, for sure, we’ve seen the impact: a steady shift from income-producing and commercial properties to single-family homeowners.”

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The workings of the board of review have recently come under heavy fire from Victor Santana, Berrios’s former political right-hand man. Santana worked for Berrios at the board for ten years until he resigned in 2002 and currently works as a political consultant. In August 2009, he filed a federal lawsuit against his former boss, Berrios, and the other board of review commissioners, and their top board staffers after the commissioners banned him from the board offices because of his ties to the Froehlich scandal. (Santana had been helping Froehlich with the controversial appeals.)

More recently, on July 29th, Santana added federal racketeering charges to his existing lawsuit, accusing all three Board of Review commissioners of engaging in “institutional bribery and pay for play” through the collection of campaign contributions from property tax lawyers. The charges fall under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. According to allegations in Santana’s complaint, the commissioners have committed bribery, money laundering, and extortion.

Santana’s suit is currently proceeding in federal court, and U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur is scheduled to rule September 21st on whether the RICO counts have merit. Steven Puiszis, an attorney who is representing Berrios and Berrios’s chief deputy, Thomas Jaconetty, in the case, says that Shadur has already twice dismissed Santana’s RICO charges against the board principals and he expects the judge will do the same on the latest charges. “Our plan is to file a motion to dismiss or an objection,” he says. The new RICO complaint, filed by Santana’s lawyer, R. Tamara de Silva, says there is new evidence that will prove that the Board of Review is indeed a “racketeering enterprise.”

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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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