The murky dealings at the Cook County Board of Review—some of them linked to the commissioner Joseph Berrios through friends and aides—have drawn the scrutiny of prosecutors.
For at least a year, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office has been investigating whether Paul Froehlich, a Democratic state representative from Schaumburg, helped arrange property tax breaks for residents and businesses in exchange for campaign contributions and favors. Documents from Froehlich’s office that were leaked to the media show Froehlich’s handwritten notes calculating the projected tax savings for the property owners. The notes also indicate what was promised in return by the taxpayers—everything from making campaign donations to putting up lawn signs. In seeking the tax breaks, Froehlich had been working with Victor Santana, a former Board of Review employee and right-hand man to Berrios. (Santana and Berrios have since parted ways.)
Of the 239 appeals championed in 2008 by Froehlich, 94 percent won a reduction in taxes, according to a Fox Chicago News report. Typically, only about 65 percent of appeals succeed. Among the fortunate property owners were two hotel operators who won a combined $688,000 in assessment cuts and subsequently donated around $37,000 to Froehlich’s campaign fund.
Froehlich and Santana deny any wrongdoing, and so far no one has been charged. The state’s attorney’s office declined to comment.
Froehlich, reached by phone, admitted to having helped his constituents with their appeals but says he never asked for anything in exchange. “Suffice it to say, I no longer offer that constituent service,” he said before hanging up abruptly. He is not running for reelection.
After the scandal erupted, the three commissioners on the Board of Review banned Santana from the agency offices, and he is now suing the board in federal court, asserting that the commissioners unfairly scapegoated him.
Separate from the state’s attorney’s office, the Board of Review conducted its own investigation of the matter–which initially grew out of allegations by a fired former Froehlich employee–to determine whether Froehlich and Santana had help inside the board and to see if these were isolated cases or if the problems ran deeper. At a series of executive sessions, the commissioners Larry Rogers Jr. and Brendan Houlihan and their deputies led the questioning of the board employees who handled the suspect cases. Confidential transcripts from that investigation–obtained by Chicago and not previously reported–paint a troubling picture of the board’s operations, particularly centering on Berrios’s office. (The transcripts are posted with the online version of this article.) The probe found suspicious irregularities in how two Berrios employees–who also play big roles in his political organization–processed the appeals.
Statements in the transcripts indicate that a veteran Berrios staffer, Felix Cardona Jr., received and processed appeals from Santana, who was collecting them on behalf of various elected officials (including Froehlich). Cardona then approved assessment reductions and got a staffer for another commissioner to sign off, providing the needed second approval. Cardona, who serves as the campaign treasurer for Maria Antonia “Toni” Berrios, a North Side state representative and one of Berrios’s daughters, would not comment to Chicago.
The two hotel properties won recommendations of big reductions from Francisco Perez, an analyst in Berrios’s office; the board investigation, according to the transcripts and interviews, indicated that the reductions were granted without adequate supporting evidence. Appeals for the hotels (as well as for two other Schaumburg businesses) were filed without lawyers, though attorneys are required when businesses appeal–another irregularity in this instance.
After the investigation concluded, the Board of Review, in a rare move, reversed itself last year and increased the assessed values of the hotels and the two other Schaumburg businesses tied to Froehlich and Santana. Perez told Chicago he has done nothing wrong and called allegations that he arranged reductions for favored insiders “ridiculous.”
The board investigation also uncovered evidence that the Froehlich problems weren’t an anomaly. Cardona, for example, had also recommended questionable breaks for Thomas Murawski, the longtime mayor of Midlothian, a southwest suburb, and for Richard Velazquez, the special counsel to the Cook County Board president, Todd Stroger, among others. Cardona approved lowering the 2008 assessed value on Murawski’s townhouse by 20 percent, from $32,618 to $26,832, saving him $4,136 over three years. The reduction came at about the same time that another 45 townhouse owners in Murawski’s subdivision filed appeals separately through a single attorney, but none got reductions as big as the mayor, who left office in 2009. Cardona’s recommendation would have given Murawski the lowest tax bill in the subdivision.
Cardona approved a 40 percent cut on the assessed value of Velazquez’s South Side home, from $68,019 to $44,103, resulting in a three-year tax savings of $10,292. Statements in the transcripts reveal that Cardona invited Velazquez to come to his office, where he then worked out the reduction—a flagrant circumvention of the normal process. Under questioning, Cardona said he was simply trying to help somebody who was confused about the appeals process. “He’s just a regular taxpayer as well,” Cardona said, according to the transcripts.
(Reached for comment, Murawski says his political connections had no bearing on his appeal. “If it did, I was unaware of it,” he says. Velazquez declined to be interviewed.)
Cardona’s recommendations for Murawski and Velazquez were detected by deputies for Rogers and Houlihan before the cases were finalized, and Cardona’s recommendations were rejected. (Both Rogers and Houlihan and their deputies called on Berrios to fire Cardona. Berrios refused. “No one’s proved he’s done anything wrong,” Berrios told me.)
Berrios and his chief deputy, Thomas Jaconetty, insisted that the staffers had innocent motives, claiming that these and several other questionable dealings were stupid mistakes, not criminal wrongdoing. But the rest of the board leadership sound skeptical in the transcripts. The apparent pattern of favoritism coming from Berrios’s office “threatens the integrity of our entire appeal process,” said Rogers at one point during the closed sessions, according to the transcripts.
It remains unclear whether Berrios knew of his staffers’ activities. With the state’s attorney’s investigation continuing, he refuses to answer questions about the series of transactions. “We were told not to talk about it,” he tells me. “We are cooperating 100 percent with the state’s attorney.”
Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo by Jim Prisching