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Preckwinkle tries to make Berrios nepotism fine stick

Monday, April 27, 2015
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle will try once again to make a punishment stick against Assessor Joe Berrios for hiring two relatives after a judge last week tossed out $10,000 in fines the Board of Ethics had tried to impose for violating nepotism rules shortly after taking office. Judge says Berrios doesn't have to pay $10,000 ethics fine Hal Dardick Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios doesn't have to pay $10,000 in fines leveled against him for hiring his relatives shortly after taking office, a judge has ruled. Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios doesn't have to pay $10,000 in fines leveled against him for hiring his relatives shortly after taking office, a judge has ruled. 

On Monday, Preckwinkle notified county commissioners that she will propose a change to the ethics ordinance at Wednesday's board meeting. The move comes after Circuit Court Judge Moshe Jacobius concluded that although the ethics panel had jurisdiction over Berrios, it did not have direct authority to fine him. Ranjit Hakim, the ethics board's executive director, said Monday that rather than continue to fight in court, "the right thing to do is just fix the legislation, so the ordinance does what everyone thought it did in the first place."

Hakim said the ethics panel has not yet made a final decision on whether to appeal Jacobius' ruling in favor of Berrios, but in his cover letter to commissioners, Hakim said changing the ordinance would be "in the interest of avoiding needless and costly litigation." The proposed amendment also would lower the maximum fine to $1,000 from $5,000 to address Jacobius' concern, expressed in his 22-page written opinion, that the ethics board's two $5,000 fines against Berrios exceeded limits set by state statute. 

 "The amount of the fine isn't the issue," said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, who added that he plans to support the proposed amendment. "It's accepting the judgment of the (ethics) board." Berrios has been fighting the fine since 2012, when the ethics panel recommended Berrios remove his sister Carmen Berrios Cruz and son Joseph E. Berrios from his office staff. Both are still employed in the assessor's office.

In a statement, Berrios said he hasn't had a chance yet to review Preckwinkle's proposal but "would welcome the opportunity to sit down with other elected county officials to discuss it." After its introduction, the ordinance would then be referred to the Legislation and Intergovernmental Relations Committee headed up by Suffredin. Preckwinkle and Berrios have been political allies, with Preckwinkle helping Berrios fight off a third-party challenge for assessor in 2010 that was mounted by Forrest Claypool, who now runs the CTA and soon will be Mayor Rahm Emanuel's chief of staff at City Hall.

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