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Preckwinkle picks new county ethics watchdog
Dismissal of predecessor raises issue of county board president's ties to Berrios

Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Tuesday named a new county ethics chief to replace the one she dumped during an investigation into Assessor Joseph Berrios, a political ally.

Ranjit Hakim, an attorney at Mayer Brown who has represented the city on state and federal constitutional issues, was picked to take the top spot at the Board of Ethics. Hakim, who donated $2,750 to President Barack Obama-associated campaign funds, is expected to start next week in the $110,000-a-year job.

He'll replace MaryNic Foster, who quietly left her post as executive director in mid-May. Last year, the Foster-led ethics board sought to fine Berrios $10,000 for allegedly violating county nepotism rules and recommended he fire his sister and son. Berrios hired them for high-paying positions shortly after taking office in late 2010.

Preckwinkle spokeswoman Kristen Mack said the change would not alter the pursuit of the case against Berrios. Preckwinkle "decided to make a change in leadership," Mack said in an email. "She changed the person, not the policy or the mission of the ethics board."

Foster, an appointee of former Board President Todd Stroger, has not always been on the same page as Preckwinkle. Late last year, Foster convinced the board to alter Preckwinkle's budget proposal, with commissioners agreeing that the board president's new organizational plan would have hampered the ethics board's independence.

The ongoing efforts to sanction Berrios have put Preckwinkle in a political predicament. She has expressed support for the investigation, but has been continually careful to describe Berrios, chairman of the county Democratic Party, as "a friend" who otherwise is doing a fine job as assessor.

Foster, whose dismissal was first reported by the Sun-Times, said she was not given a reason for being let go.

"I understand I serve at the pleasure of the president," she said. "That's the nature of the position. It is the president's prerogative to have someone she wants in that position."

Foster, a 21-year veteran of the office who led it for five years before her departure, also defended her work.

"I think we did the best we could with the resources we had," said Foster, who noted that she also ran the Human Rights and Women's Issues commissions. Combined, the three agencies have fewer than a dozen employees and annual funding of less than $900,000.

The ethics board concluded Berrios violated county nepotism rules, but Berrios contended that as a separately elected countywide official, he is not subject to the ethics ordinance enacted by the board. This year, the ethics board got a judge to approve the hiring of former city Inspector General David Hoffman as a special prosecutor to press its case against Berrios.

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