Berrios fined $41K for donations from property tax appeals lawyers

Berrios fined $41K for donations from property tax appeals lawyers

The Cook County assessor may have to pay $41,000 in fines for accepting donations in excess of the limit allowed by Cook County campaign finance rules.

In rulings released Jan. 8, the Cook County Ethics Board fined Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios $41,000 for not returning campaign contributions from property tax appeals lawyers that were over the legal limit allowed by Cook County campaign finance rules, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The ethics board noted 30 examples of property tax attorneys or firms donating to a Berrios campaign fund above the county’s $750 cap in 2016 and 2017.

The Tribune reports that one of those donations came from attorney Michael Crane of Crane and Norcross, a property tax firm which has won $1.8 billion in value reductions on commercial and industrial properties since Berrios took office in December 2010.

Each instance of violating the campaign law against excessive donations is subject to a maximum fine of $1,000. Berrios and his main campaign fund, the Committee to Elect Joseph Berrios Cook County Assessor, were fined $30,000 – $1,000 for each violation. The ethics board also fined Berrios and his 31st Ward Democratic Organization $11,000.

In addition to his role as assessor, Berrios also serves as the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.

A 2016 Cook County ethics ordinance requires that campaign donors seeking official action with county government could contribute no more than $750 in nonelection years, according to the Tribune. Berrios’ lawyers are challenging the county’s limits, calling them unconstitutional.

Berrios has been raising campaign funds from property tax appeals attorneys since before he was elected assessor. While serving on the Cook County Board of Review, Berrios raised $3 million in campaign funds over the course of a decade, nearly $1 million of which came from 15 law firms that handle property tax appeals, The New York Times reported.

But Berrios didn’t stop there. Illinois State Board of Elections records show that since 2012, Berrios campaign funds have taken $1.9 million from law firms that handle property tax appeals, according to a May 2017 report by CBS Chicago 2 Investigators.

Berrios’ connections to property tax appeals firms are especially concerning given recent reports of his office’s performance.

A Tribune investigation revealed in 2017 that the assessor’s office regularly lowballed the value of expensive properties while overestimating the values of properties in less wealthy areas.

In addition to this inequality, the data show a handful of law firms where some of Illinois’ most powerful politicians practice are benefiting the most under Berrios’ watch. One of those politicians is Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, who also serves as the chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party. Madigan is one of the founding partners of Madigan & Getzendanner, a law firm specializing in property tax appeals.

Madigan and Berrios are longtime political allies. Precinct workers from the Southwest Side, where Madigan’s district is located, helped Berrios in a hard-fought re-election campaign for the Board of Review in 2008. And in 2010, when Berrios ran for Cook County assessor, Madigan’s political workers assisted Berrios in the 2010 Democratic primary race.

Berrios, a former state representative, also co-owns a consulting company that has performed lobbying work in the General Assembly on behalf of clients such as Comcast, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. As speaker of the Illinois House, Madigan wields enormous power over whether a bill is even called for a vote. This makes the speaker important to a lobbyist’s success.

As part of their investigation of the Cook County property tax system, the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois revealed that under Berrios’ leadership of the assessor’s office from 2011 to 2016, Madigan & Getzendanner appealed valuations on more than 4,200 parcels of property, totaling more than $8.6 billion in assessed value. And during that time, Madigan & Getzendanner won for clients $1.7 billion worth of reductions in assessed value from the Cook County assessor’s office.

But it’s not just Madigan.

Chicago Alderman Ed Burke’s law firm, Klafter & Burke, also handles property tax appeals. According to the Tribune-ProPublica Illinois investigation, Klafter & Burke appealed initial valuations on more than 9,500 parcels of property from 2011 to 2016 and won nearly $865 million in assessed value reductions from Berrios’ office.

Berrios’ consulting company has also been engaged to lobby the Chicago City Council, in which Burke serves as the powerful chair of the Finance Committee.

With appearances of blatant conflicts of interest and reports of incompetence in the assessor’s office, it’s little wonder Berrios is facing scrutiny.

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