The Cook County Board of Ethics has confirmed that Assessor Joe Berrios is flouting county ethics rules by employing his relatives. It's a decision that's plain as day to everyone except Joe Berrios.
Shortly after Berrios was elected assessor in 2010, he hired his son and his sister to work for him. They weren't hard to find — they already worked for him at the Board of Review, which handles property tax appeals.
"All I did, really, was transfer them from upstairs to downstairs," Berrios told the Tribune. "I trust them. It is what it is."
It is what it is — a flagrant violation of the county's ethics rules.
A few weeks after Berrios put them on the new payroll, the county's inspector general and the ethics board sent a letter to all county officials (insert throat-clearing "ahem" here) to caution against hiring relatives.
Section 2-582 of the county's ethics code states: "No official or employee shall participate in a hiring decision, or shall employ or advocate for employment, in any agency over which such official or employee either serves or over which he or she exercises authority, supervision or control, any person who is a relative or domestic partner of said official or employee ... "
Berrios didn't take the hint. He kept his son and sister on the payroll. A Berrios daughter already worked for the assessor's office, and he kept her on too. Berrios' son and sister got nice raises. They now earn $69,000 and $108,000, respectively.
This issue hasn't gone away. The Sun-Times reported that a recent confidential ethics board ruling says Berrios should take his sister and his son off the payroll and pay a $10,000 fine for the ethics violation.
County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who backed Berrios for assessor and has generally soft-pedaled his open disdain for ethical government, finally got a little riled. A little. She said what Berrios is doing is "inappropriate. And it leads to the perception that government is only for friends and family. And that's neither good nor right."
Berrios still won't budge. He thinks government exists to take care of his friends and family. And he claims a 1994 opinion by the Cook County state's attorney exempts him from the ethics law because he is an independently elected countywide official.
That's curious because Berrios complies with other requirements of the ethics ordinance, including filing statements of his personal finances. (Note: He still lists a lobbying business he promised to sell off if he was elected assessor.) Why should he be allowed to pick and choose which ethics rules to follow?
It's time for people to apply pressure — think of a power washer against a paper plate.
County Board members should ask State's Attorney Anita Alvarez for an opinion: Is Berrios exempt from the ethics law? Let's hear.
Toni Preckwinkle and the board members are starting to draft a 2013 budget. That budget should strip away the jobs held by the assessor's kin.
Berrios can try to drag this out. He has 30 days to appeal the ethics board recommendation. He can take the dispute to court. Normally the state's attorney would represent him, but Alvarez will represent the ethics board in this matter. A judge has appointed outside counsel to represent Berrios. Yes, taxpayers are paying for the lawyers on both sides.
Do we really have to go through all this time and taxpayer expense to make Berrios do what other officials are expected to do? The ordinance is clear.
Mr. Berrios, we had to laugh when you put out a press release this week encouraging taxpayers to make sure they're getting all the right exemptions on their tax bills. You play those taxpayers for fools when you make them support your family.