Just who is Joe Berrios?
He’s the head of the Cook County Democratic Party.
He’s a Springfield lobbyist, a friend and political ally of House Speaker Mike Madigan.
He’s a proud family patriarch with a history of putting family members on the county payroll.
And he’s the person who has the most say on whether your property tax bills will go up or down.
His office assesses the value of all Cook County properties for taxation purposes.
Two former employees of Berrios, John Racasi, and Thomas Hawkins, who are now in federal prison, told an undercover federal informant that Berrios was in cahoots with them in the bribery scheme when Berrios was a commissioner on the Board of Review.
According to the recording obtained by Illinois News Network and also reported in the Chicago Tribune, Hawkins said to the informant “This is the move…Joe’s gonna run for assessor…he’s gonna win. And then he’s gonna appoint his top deputy for commissioner. So now Joe’s gonna get paid double. He’s gonna get paid for raising taxes and lowering (them).”
Berrios has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
“These were two desperate kids trying to make themselves sound important,” Berrios said in an email interview with Illinois News Network. “The Assessor had nothing to do with and new [sic] nothing about their schemes. In fact, both the prosecution and defense attorneys went out of their way to say I was not a part of the corruption case. “
Hawkins, 49, and Racasi, 52, were convicted of accepting a $1,500 bribe from the informant.
Corruption is hardly new in the office that has been plagued by wrongdoing since at least the 1950s.
However, Berrios has managed to raise the ire of the Cook County Independent Inspector General’s Office and the Cook County Ethics Board.
When the Inspector General’s Office attempted to subpoena documents concerning allegations that an employee in his office took multiple personal homeowner exemptions against state law, Berrios refused to honor the subpoena saying he isn’t under the inspector general’s jurisdiction.
Berrios has had three relatives on his payroll: his sister Carmen Berrios, his son Joseph E. “Joey” Berrios and his daughter Vanessa Berrios.
The Cook County Ethics Board recommended he fire the relatives on his payroll and pay $10,000 in fines. The county ethics ordinance says you can’t put family members on your payroll.
Berrios said he isn’t under the board’s jurisdiction either and has ignored their requests.
The assessor told INN that he has not violated any nepotism rules, but said he cannot comment further because the case is pending.
“I believe the ethics issues is about to end up in court and our case is already in court,” said Cook
County Inspector General Patrick M. Blanchard. “Berrios contends he is not subject to the authority of the IG because he is a separate agency. We disagree and a court case on this matter is ongoing.”
But one thing is certain, Cook County taxpayers are financially responsible for the decisions made by the assessor’s office.
The Cook County Board settled an employment discrimination lawsuit for $550,000. The settlement stems from Berrios firing numerous employees upon being elected assessor and hiring relatives and others to replace them.
In regards to the settlement Berrios told INN, “The Assessor voluntarily participated in the … program. He had no say in how that money was dispersed. There was no appeal process. The Cook County Board had no choice but to make the payments. The Assessor agreed to participate and cooperate with the court, so that is exactly what he is doing.”
Political Science Professor Dick Simpson of the University of Illinois at Chicago said while many of the problems within the Cook County property tax system are clearly identifiable, others are more nuanced.
“The assessor’s office has long been a bastion of political patronage,” he said. “We know that there have been plenty of scandals in that office and people have been convicted of taking bribes. What many have wondered but don’t know is whether taxpayers or law firms that have made donations to assessor campaigns have received special treatment. “
The assessor post pays $125,000 per year and Berrios has spent more than $200,000 of his own personal money as well $2.8 million in campaign dollars in his races for assessor and the Cook County Board of Review.
“It’s a fairly common situation, many times people pay a lot to run for state legislature, which doesn’t pay a lot, or for many other offices,” said Simpson. “The assumption is that they are going to do well in their overall career if it’s not a direct situation they will make off of bribes.”
In addition to his job as assessor, Berrios also operates an insurance agency and a lobbying firm.
Simpson noted that at the same time House Speaker Mike Madigan’s law firm has been arguing for assessment reductions in Berrios’ offices, Berrios has been in Springfield lobbying Madigan on legislation being pushed by his clients.
But Berrios told INN he has lobbied for things in Springfield that benefit Cook County taxpayers.
“The Assessor saw an issue with people getting tax exemptions they weren’t entitled to, so the Assessor spent years in Springfield fighting for legislation to allow him to go after property tax cheats. Now his office is bringing back millions of dollars to the county through his erroneous exemption program,” he said.