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Assessor Berrios' name emerges in bribery trial

Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Chicago Tribune
by Jason Meisner

In September 2008, Cook County Board of Review analyst Thomas Hawkins was talking about an alleged scheme to lower property tax assessments for a corrupt Chicago police officer when he mentioned that the "boss" had grand plans for how to make even more in bribes in the future.

"This is the move...Joe's gonna run for assessor...he's gonna win," Hawkins allegedly told the officer, Ali Haleem, who was secretly recording the conversation for the FBI. "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)."

The boss he was referring to was Joe Berrios, then the leader of the Board of Review. And Hawkins' prediction came true: Berrios was elected the Cook County Assessor in 2010.

The snippet was among hours of wiretaps recorded by Haleem played Tuesday at the federal bribery trial of Hawkins, 49, and his fellow analyst at the board, John Racasi, 52. The two are accused of pocketing a $1,500 cash payoff in 2008 from Haleem, a crooked Chicago police officer who had agreed to work undercover for the feds.

Berrios has not been accused of any wrongdoing. But his name came up repeatedly in the recorded conversations played for jurors on Tuesday. In the dialogue, which is often peppered with expletives and racial epithets, Hawkins and Racasi allegedly told Haleem that Berrios was in "cahoots" with their schemes, according to transcripts provided at trial.

In one conversation recorded on Sept. 11, 2008, Hawkins tells Haleem he is "bringin' in Joe" on a deal so they can bypass the usual red tape, according to the transcripts. Hawkins also talks of sharing "lettuce" with Berrios -- a code word for bribe money.

"Now I gotta go through the system, but I go straight to Berrios and get a signature," Hawkins said. "You know with the lettuce, say here you go, man. Sign this."

The trial has offered a rare glimpse of the inner workings of the Board of Review, which has long been criticized as rife with insider dealing and conflicts of interest if not outright wrongdoing.

Haleem's testimony is expected to continue Wednesday.

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