In case you missed it, last night WGN News at Nine aired another excellent investigative story about Cook County assessor Joe Berrios. It’s worth watching. The segment—reported by co-anchor Mark Suppelsa and Marsha Bartel—reveals how Berrios continues to put his family and close political friends on the assessor’s payroll, even while laying off 53 employees. In last night’s story, WGN reported that Berrios hired his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Vicki LaCalamita, to be his new director of Human Resources, with a salary of $107,841, according to WGN. Berrios also hired LaCalamita’s son as a manager earning $57,923. And her cousin, too; she makes $76,960 as an industrial appraiser.
One of LaCalamita’s former friends, Irene Paterno, and two other sources told WGN that Berrios and LaCalamita’s close relationship dates back several decades. Paterno described taking a lavish trip to Las Vegas years ago with Berrios and LaCalamita—wined and dined by tax attorneys, she claims. She also said to WGN that LaCalamita used to brag to her girlfriends “…about the big diamond she was going to get from Joe Berrios once they all got divorces.” Perhaps most interesting, Paterno described how LaCalamita would talk about getting money from Berrios to put in “the box,” reportedly a safety deposit box kept by LaCalamita for her and Berrios. Questioned by Suppelsa, Berrios denied being involved in a romantic relationship with LaCalamita. “There’s no relationship,” he said. “We’re friends.” (He also said tax attorneys did not pay for the Las Vegas trip.)
As you may recall, in early January, the Cook County Ethics Board launched an investigation into Berrios’s hiring of his son and sister to work in his new office. (I previously reported that they both 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.
It’s also worth noting that, besides hiring relatives and old flames to his new office, Berrios has brought along a whole portfolio of political operatives from his organization. Two deserve special mention: Felix Cardona Jr. and Francisco Perez. Berrios hired Cardona, a former analyst under Berrios at the Board of Reivew, to be the director of special assessment programs, a job that pays $107,841. Perez is Berrios’s new director of taxpayer services, also earning $107,841.
In an investigative story that Chicago published last October with the Better Government Association, we revealed that Cardona and Perez had been at the center of an internal Board of Review investigation of a possible influence-peddling case involving tax appeals linked to Berrios’s office. The case centers on allegations that Paul Froehlich, then a Democratic state representative from Schaumburg, worked through close associates of Berrios, including Cardona and Perez, to win tax reductions for constituents in return for campaign donations. At the time of the investigation, both Larry Rogers Jr. and Brendan Houlihan, the two other commissioners serving with Berrios, and their deputies, called on Berrios to fire Cardona. Berrios refused.
The question is: why would Berrios bring Cardona and Perez over to the assessor’s office, even after his fellow board commissioners and their deputies had raised questions about their actions? Both Cardona and Perez have denied any wrongdoing, and Berrios defended them. The Cook County state’s attorney’s office is currently investigating the matter, too.