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Foxx: Berrios shouldn't use special state's attorney to fight ethics law

Tuesday, February 06, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Ray Long

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is clashing with Assessor Joseph Berrios over his use of a special state’s attorney to challenge the constitutionality of a county ordinance that limits campaign contributions.

Foxx has endorsed allowing a special state’s attorney, Kevin Forde, to defend Berrios as the county Board of Ethics seeks to fine the assessor $41,000 for accepting excess contributions from tax appeals lawyers. Forde, a private attorney, plans to ask the ethics board to reconsider the fines.

But when Forde also filed a lawsuit on Berrios’ behalf that challenges the county’s contribution limits, the action went beyond the parameters of Forde’s assignment, according to court papers filed Feb. 1 by Assistant State’s Attorney Paul Fangman.

The lawsuit was only “nominally brought” by Berrios in his official role as assessor, Foxx argued in her petition, saying the “true plaintiff” in the suit is Berrios as a political candidate.

The state’s attorney is not required to represent Berrios “in his individual capacity filing a complaint against the county with respect to its regulations of his actions as a candidate for office,” according to the petition, which seeks to remove Forde from participating in the lawsuit as a special assistant state’s attorney.

Foxx’s action adds a new dimension to the controversy surrounding the assessor as he runs for a third term against a well-funded challenger. A 2017 investigation by the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois found widespread problems with the residential and commercial property assessments produced under Berrios, who is also chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.

In an interview Monday, Forde said filing a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of the county’s limits is the “best and most effective defense there is” for Berrios to mount against the fines levied by the ethics board.

The board’s decision to fine Berrios is based on a 2016 county ordinance stating that donors who seek “official action” with the county may contribute no more than $750 in nonelection years.

Officials cited 30 examples of property tax attorneys or firms whose donations to Berrios’ main political fund in late 2016 or early 2017 exceeded that limit. It fined Berrios and the Committee to Elect Joseph Berrios Cook County Assessor $1,000 for each violation, for a total of $30,000. An additional $11,000 in fines were imposed on Berrios and his 31st Ward Democratic Organization, his main power base.

Berrios lawyers say the 2016 ordinance is unconstitutionally vague, arguing that it is unclear whether the simple act of getting a marriage license at the county clerk’s office would be defined as seeking official action.

Forde also has challenged the county’s ability to set limits on donations that are stricter than those permitted by state law. The state currently allows $5,600 per election in contributions from individuals, though those limits were removed in the assessor’s race when Berrios challenger Fritz Kaegi gave his campaign $800,000 in loans and donations.

The ethics board must consider that the “state of Illinois has declared that there are no limits on the fund-raising in this race because Mr. Berrios is running against a candidate who is self-funding by pumping in $800,000 of his own money,” Forde said.

A Foxx spokeswoman declined to comment on the pending attempt to prevent Forde from acting as a special assistant state’s attorney in the lawsuit. A hearing is set for Feb. 13 in circuit court.

Twitter @RayLong

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