Feds investigate property tax bribery scheme in Cook County

Feds investigate property tax bribery scheme in Cook County

A Board of Review employee claims corruption is rampant in his Cook County office after an FBI affidavit states he was charging $2,000 to lower assessment on commercial properties and $1,000 for homes.

A Cook County Board of Review employee has come under FBI investigation for allegedly accepting thousands of dollars in bribes to lower property tax assessments, according to a federal court affidavit obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The employee, an unnamed member of the administrative clerk’s staff, said the $43,000 he accepted in bribes was to be split with others in the Cook County office, insisting, “I’m just the middle guy.”

The corruption claims involving the Board of Review are coming as property tax bills were expected to be mailed out. The bills may be delayed because of separate problems uncovered with the county’s $250-million senior tax break program.

The Cook County property tax scheme was revealed as part of a federal probe dating back to at least January 2019. The inquiry involves another unnamed individual secretly cooperating with the feds under a separate criminal investigation. That person has yet to be charged.

According the 45-page affidavit, the cooperating witness approached the Board of Review worker about lowering property assessments in July 2020, eventually emailing the employee 18 commercial properties and seven residential properties owned by an associate on Jan. 5.

The Board of Review employee under investigation told the witness later that day “everything’s doable” and allegedly offered to reduce property assessments in exchange for bribes.

The Cook County employee charged $2,000 per commercial property and $1,000 per residential.

“Half now and half when it’s completed,” the employee allegedly said, later agreeing on $21,000 for the first payment. The affidavit contained a photo of the employee accepting the bribe in a Skokie parking lot Jan. 15.

The employee sent the cooperating witness the reduced property assessment in May, reportedly saving his associated around $99,000.

The Board of Review worker then requested to meet with the witness to collect the second $22,000 payment July 1 for completing the task. The feds filed their affidavit June 30 to search the employee and his phone.

After being made aware of the federal affidavit, Board of Review Commissioner Tammy Wendt told the Sun-Times, “It is not a surprise to me as I have discovered a culture at the Board of Review that believes it operates in a vacuum. I have pressed the issue of adhering to the Open Meetings Act, homeowner appeal denials, financial responsibility and other issues of concern in my short time at the Board.”

“I hope this serves as a wake-up call to everyone. If this was truly an organized crew inside the Cook County Board of Review, we need to do a full forensic accounting of any and all work touched by those named in this investigation,” Wendt said.

Commissioner Larry Rogers Jr. said in a written statement, “We take any allegation of impropriety very seriously and will be opening an investigation.”

The exposition of an alleged pay-to-play scheme in the Board of Review coincides as Cook County residents prepare to shoulder one of the highest property taxes in the nation.

Property taxes billed by Cook County’s local governments has been nearly triple the rate of inflation during the past 20 years, according to a study from 2020.

Cook County residents pay an average effective property tax rate of 2.1% of their homes’ values each year – almost double the national average of 1.1%. That burden is not equally shared.

Cook County performed worst among DuPage, Lake and St. Clair County for accuracy and fairness for assessing property values, according to an analysis of Illinois Department of Revenue data. This means properties with comparable features located in similar areas were more commonly assessed at different rates when compared to their county neighbors.

Cook County also saw owners of higher-value residential, commercial and industrial property with lower levels of assessed value than owners of less expensive property. Wealthier property owners in Cook County tended to catch a break in their assessed values, while poorer property owners did not.

While state residents expect higher property taxes to fund services that improve their communities and raise home values, less than 50 cents of every additional dollar paid in Illinois property taxes went to pay for services between 1996 and 2016. Meanwhile, 45 cents of every dollar went to supporting government worker pensions.

Illinois’ worst-in-the-nation pension crisis consumed 26.5% of the state’s total operating budget in 2020, up from less than 4% in 1990 through 1997. As a consequence, increased pension contributions have diverted property taxes from spending on core services that benefit the community and raise home values.

Curbing the growth of future, unearned public pension costs by amending the Illinois Constitution is a major element in digging out of the $317 billion pension hole and controling the rise that make Illinois property taxes second-highest in the nation. Curbing the public corruption than ranks Illinois No. 2 wouldn’t hurt, either.

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