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Berrios celebrates in 2007 with Robert Martwick Sr. (right) after party leader select Berrios to lead Cook County’s Democratic Party. Martwick, the secretary of the party in Cook County, is also a tax appeals attorney who appears before the Board of Review.
Over his years on the board of Review, Berrios has essentially developed two ways to circumvent the usual appeals process, according to two sources, a board insider and a political operative who has worked with Berrios in the past. (Both sources asked to remain anonymous because of their current positions.) The first is by meeting privately with attorneys in his board office to discuss tax appeals. Such meetings would show a blatant disregard for board protocol. “I’m not aware of anything illicit or improper going on in those meetings,” Larry Rogers Jr. told me. “It’s not been my practice to have those meetings. I’ve always felt it was important to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”
The Froehlich scandal last year prompted concerns that some people had inappropriate access to the nonpublic areas of the board’s offices in the Cook County Building, and since May 2009 the board has required visitors to sign in. Chicago and the BGA used a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain copies of those visitor logs, which reveal Berrios has regularly met in his private office at the board with lawyers—at least 30 by our count, many of them repeat visitors—and he was the only commissioner to do so. (He strongly objected to the sign-in policy but was overruled by the other two commissioners, according to transcripts of a board investigation into the Froehlich matter.)
Berrios scoffs at insinuations of backroom dealing with attorneys. “I have an open-door policy—I’ll meet with anyone,” he tells me. “We’re there to serve the public, whether they’re attorneys or they’re homeowners. That’s our job.”
The Chicago/BGA investigation also found that at least five attorneys and a property tax appeals consultant who visited Berrios at his county building office made contributions to him on the same day as or within a few days of the meeting. The lawyer Arnold Siegel, for example, has met with Berrios nine times since May 2009. State records show that after two of Siegel’s visits, Berrios’s campaign recorded contributions from him for $2,000 and $1,000, respectively.
Berrios has also met in his office with Robert Martwick and his son, Robert Jr. The elder Martwick is a property tax lawyer who doubles as the Democratic committeeman of Norwood Park Township and serves as secretary of the Cook County Democratic Party. The son is also a tax appeals attorney and an elected trustee in the Village of Norridge who runs a political consulting firm that has done work for Berrios. The Martwicks have met with Berrios, separately and together, 17 times, and on three occasions father or son quickly followed up with donations of $1,000, $200, and $3,000. Dean Katsaros, a tax consultant, met with Berrios 19 times, twice giving him contributions almost immediately afterward totaling $3,500.
Berrios calls the timing of the contributions a “total coincidence.” (Siegel, the Martwicks, and Katsaros did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
The board’s outreach programs also enable Berrios to avoid the usual checks and balances. The three commissioners (or certain staff members) regularly travel around their election districts and make presentations to community groups on how to appeal their property taxes—a way for the commissioners to reach out to property owners who (presumably) vote. Homeowners and business owners attending these outreaches can fill out appeals forms and submit their own evidence for why they deserve an assessment reduction. (Business owners must file through an attorney.)
Typically, each commissioner sets up his own outreaches, and his staff analyzes the cases before they are signed off on by another commissioner’s staffer. The board insider says that Berrios has arranged to have favored cases placed among the outreach cases, assuring that his office will have control over the outcome. “If a file is labeled ‘outreach,’ it always goes to the staff that brings it in,” says the insider. “Like anything else, it can certainly be abused and used to funnel files from friends and contributors, or whatever.”
“If that’s true, that’s a huge potential problem,” said Rogers when I asked him about the allegation. “Our staff—we are stringent about no files being added to outreach. If it wasn’t part of an outreach, it shouldn’t be part of the outreach files.”
Berrios calls the claim that he or members of his staff misuse the outreach process “absolute bull.” He adds, “Again, everything is set up so that no one commissioner can make a decision on any case whatsoever.”
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Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo by Charles Osgood