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Chicago magazine, WGN-TV and BGA investigate potential conflicts of interest at Cook County Board of Ethics

Tonight, WGN News at Nine is airing an investigative story that all began right here, several months back, during the course of our investigation with the Better Government Association (BGA) of soon-to-be elected Cook County assessor Joseph Berrios. (The investigation was published in our October issue)…

Tonight, WGN News at Nine is airing an investigative story that all began right here, several months back, during the course of our investigation with the Better Government Association (BGA) of soon-to-be elected Cook County assessor Joseph Berrios. (The investigation was published in our October issue).

Sorry, no spoilers here! WGN’s story—reported by co-anchor Mark Suppelsa—examines a little-known county government office, the Cook County Board of Ethics (I know; it sounds unbelievable, but it does exist), and its chairman, John Pikarski Jr.

A bit of background: The Cook County Board of Ethics is the agency that enforces the county’s ethics rules. Among other things, it’s supposed to monitor conflicts of interest, campaign contributions, nepotism, and political activity to ensure that county officials, candidates for county offices, and employees are following the rules. The board meets monthly and is composed of five members (who are unpaid), appointed by the Cook County president with approval of the county board of commissioners. In addition to Pikarski, current members include: Juan Calixto, a fundraiser for the nonprofit grassroots organization Mujeres Latinas en Acción; Anne I. Shaw, a Chicago lawyer; Samuel E. Hinkle III, pastor of the Cathedral of Joy Baptist Church in Flossmoor; and Roseann Oliver, a partner at Perkins Coie law firm.

In early January, the ethics board launched an investigation into Berrios’s hiring of his son and sister to work in his new office. (I previously reported that Berrios’s son and sister worked for him for years at the Board of Review. So did two sisters-in-law and a brother-in-law, by the way. Another daughter already works at the assessor’s office.) County ethics rules prohibit elected officials and other county employees from hiring or immediately supervising a relative.

Why did the board decide to look into Berrios now? I’d like to think that the publicity surrounding our investigation of Berrios had something to do with it. Within days after our original story was published, the Cook County Board tightened its campaign finance laws, citing our article.

During the reporting of our story, investigators at the BGA and I tried repeatedly to question John Pikarski about his dealings with Berrios. It so happens that, in addition to chairing the ethics board, Pikarski is a Chicago property tax attorney, whose law firm does substantial business before the Board of Review, where Berrios served as commissioner for 22 years, and the county assessor’s office, his current home. Pikarski and his firm have donated thousands of dollars to Berrios’s campaigns over the years and, meanwhile, his clients have received millions in property tax breaks from the Board of Review.

Pikarski, who has served as president of the ethics board since 1992, did not return repeated calls for comment. And twice, when a BGA investigator and I tried to interview him after recent ethics board meetings, Pikarski dodged our questions and abruptly left the room. We followed him into a County Building elevator and continued to politely ask him for comment, but he refused. In fact, he didn’t say a word. (You can check out the awkward video footage tonight in the WGN broadcast.)

Tonight’s WGN investigation raises an important question: Should someone who does substantial business with a county agency be the person that oversees the body that enforces the county’s ethics laws?

In our earlier investigation, Chicago and the BGA found that at least 23 and as many as 37 lawyers or firms (depending on how the ordinance is interpreted) exceeded the county’s campaign donation limits. But we didn’t find one instance where a property tax lawyer was disciplined for violating the ethics rules.

For more, tune in at 9 p.m. tonight to WGN.

UPDATE: Here’s Mark Suppelsa’s report from last night’s WGN News at Nine:

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