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
Inside Berrios’s world: Hefty campaign donations from tax attorneys have raised conflict issues
The oldest of seven children born to Puerto Rican natives, young Joe Berrios got his start in politics after his family moved from Cabrini-Green to Humboldt Park. As a teenager, he worked precincts for the alderman Thomas Keane’s powerful 31st Ward political organization. Back then, Hispanic immigrants were rapidly altering the landscape of the Northwest Side, and Keane was looking for more Latino faces for his political crew. After Keane was convicted of fraud and conspiracy in 1974 and forced out of office, Berrios, a loyal Democratic machine soldier, continued to climb up the ward ladder.

In 1980, Berrios, who has an accounting degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago, got a patronage job as an accountant at the Board of Review—then a sleepy backwater called the Cook County Board of (tax) Appeals. In 1982, he was elected to the Illinois Statehouse but continued to work for the board.


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

After the ward boss who succeeded Keane was convicted on extortion charges in 1987, Berrios became the new boss, a post he still holds. A year later, he left the state legislature to run successfully for commissioner on the Board of Review. He’s been there ever since, today earning $100,000 for the part-time job.

In his other career, as a lobbyist in Springfield, he won an astonishing victory last spring for one of his clients, the Illinois Coin Machine Operators Association, when the state legislature voted to permit video poker in bars, restaurants, and truck stops across the state. The measure swept through the Madigan-dominated house, 86–30 (and one “present” vote), with little prior warning and no public hearings. Madigan and Berrios denied any backroom horse-trading, both insisting that the legislation had nothing to do with either their close political ties or their side business dealings before the tax appeals board. Others were skeptical. It must have been, as Greg Hinz, the political columnist for Crain’s Chicago Business, wrote with oozing sarcasm, “another one of those remarkable Springfield coincidences.”

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People who know Berrios say he has always had his eye on another prize: the assessor’s office. In the machine hierarchy, the assessor’s office traditionally has been one of the plummest of the plum political jobs—a bastion for patronage and big campaign donations. In fact, Thomas Hynes, the assessor from 1978 to 1997, gave up the state senate presidency for the lower-profile job, which is currently held by the Democrat James Houlihan, who isn’t running for reelection.

Flush with campaign money and backed by party regulars, Berrios seemed a shoo-in for the assessor’s job. He announced his candidacy in August 2009 without much fanfare—actually in a press release put out on the same day he underwent gastric band surgery. But the race was not a cakewalk. In a three-way primary contest last February against two lesser-known opponents, Berrios squeaked by with 40 percent of the vote. Soon after, Forrest Claypool, the reform-minded county board commissioner, entered the assessor’s race as an independent against Berrios and the token candidates for the Republicans (Sharon Strobeck-Eckersall) and the Green Party (Robert Grota). The election will be held on November 2nd.

In the primary, Berrios tried to claim the mantle of reformer, promising to “clarify, demystify, and simplify” aspects of the county’s tax system. Yet during his time as a commissioner, he has regularly fought efforts to move the board out of the Paleolithic era—for example, he long resisted computer-assisted techniques, which can result in bringing more transparency and accuracy to the process. To this day, commercial appeals are still calculated manually, with pencils and paper. A few years ago, he even opposed the passage of a county board ordinance requiring the Board of Review to post its rulings on the Internet. “He fought it to the bitter end,” recalls Mike Quigley, the North Side congressman who sponsored the ordinance back when he served on the county board. (The measure passed, and all Cook County tax appeal results are now listed online.)

In making his case to be elected assessor, Berrios cites his vast experience working on property tax issues. By comparison, he points out, his leading opponent in the race, Claypool, worked at the county’s tax appeals board for only a short time during the early 1980s. “I know what I’m doing, and Forrest [Claypool] does not,” he says. “Five months’ experience at the Board of Review doesn’t give him the knowledge and the ability to work in the assessor’s office.”

The newspapers have been harsh on Berrios’s run for the job. The Tribune said his slating by the county’s Democrats was a “miserable mistake.” The Sun-Times called his candidacy a “tragedy.” Some Board of Review observers worry that if Berrios wins in November, he’ll become even more emboldened to play politics with the property tax system. Unlike with the board’s built-in system of checks and balances, such as they are, the assessor acts largely on his own. As the current board insider puts it, “Nobody will be watching Joe.”


Illustration: Jay Taylor



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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