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Cook ethics board probes Berrios

Tuesday, March 01, 2011
Daily Herald
by Ted Cox

Assessor Joseph Berrios is being probed by the Cook County Board of Ethics for allegedly receiving excessive campaign contributions from property-tax attorneys arguing cases in his office and before the Board of Review.

Berrios, however, claims the new ordinance he’s supposedly violated is unconstitutional and doesn’t apply.

Berrios spokeswoman Kelley Quinn acknowledged that about a dozen property-tax attorneys gave Berrios more than $1,500 each after the Cook County Board in September set a campaign contribution limit of $1,500 per election cycle and $750 per election for contributors doing business with the assessor’s office, matching the limit set for other county officials.

“We have an opinion from the state’s attorney’s office that this is unconstitutional,” Quinn said. She added that it “violates the First Amendment,” according to the latest U.S. Supreme Court ruling on fundraising, and that “the county board didn’t have the right to restrict how much money an independently elected official can raise.”

The opinion, written last month by Deputy State’s Attorney Patrick Driscoll Jr., states: “A court would likely find (the new ordinance) unconstitutional” in that “the county lacks the home-rule authority to interfere with the assessor.”

“It’s my understanding that the inquiries have stopped due to this opinion,” Quinn said. “What this comes down to is this ordinance was nothing more than a witch hunt against Joe Berrios,” she added, pointing to how it was sponsored by former Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool, who lost the assessor’s race to Berrios in November. “He wanted to pigeonhole the assessor in the amount of money he could raise.”

The fact remains, however, that the county board did pass it, and it was signed into law.

“I really can’t comment on any ongoing investigations,” said MaryNic Foster, head of the county ethics board.

“There has been no final declaration” on the legality of the law, she added. “The state’s attorney’s opinion would not keep us at this point in time from doing what we’re charged with doing — enforcing the ethics ordinance as drafted.”

Berrios also faces an ongoing probe into his hiring of family members in the assessor’s office and whether that violates rules on nepotism.

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