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Cook County Assessor Berrios goes to court to keep property tax lawyers' campaign contributions flowing

Wednesday, February 28, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick, Jason Grotto

With less than three weeks until election day, Democratic Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios went to court in an effort to keep the spigot flowing on campaign contributions from property tax appeal lawyers whose livelihoods can depend on the decisions his office makes.

On Wednesday, Berrios’ lawyers asked Circuit Court Judge Sanjay Tailor to void county ethics rules that place limits on campaign contributions to elected officials and candidates from those who seek “official action” from the county. Berrios’ team argued the county rules violate the state constitution because only the Illinois legislature has authority to set campaign contribution limits.

The county, however, maintained that it has the power to set its own, more-restrictive limits on campaign cash to avoid quid pro quo politics.

While the optics of the situation won’t exactly win the old-school Berrios praise from good government groups, a look at where Berrios’ campaign cash is coming from shows that property appeals lawyers remain a vital source of contributions. Since October, Berrios has collected more than $276,000 from those attorneys — about four-fifths of what he’s received in individual contributions during that time.

The county Board of Ethics warned Berrios last summer that he was breaking the rules and then slapped him with $41,000 in fines in January. Berrios sued, and a judge’s ruling gave the assessor the leeway to continue the questionable fundraising practice without immediate penalty.

Berrios is in court over the issue as his primary challenger is criticizing him for taking political money from those who stand to benefit from the decisions made by the assessor’s office. Frederick “Fritz” Kaegi has pledged to not take money from tax appeal attorneys.

The practice also was highlighted in “The Tax Divide,” a Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois series that concluded Berrios’ assessment practices favored the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Tax appeals, which have flourished under Berrios, only make the system less fair, the series concluded and a recent independent study commissioned by county officials confirmed.

In addition, how Berrios’ case plays out — and is perceived by the public — also could have implications well beyond the down-ballot campaign for assessor. Some of the state’s most powerful politicians, including House Speaker Michael Madigan and 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke, are lawyers whose firms make money handling property tax appeals. Berrios, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, is a key Madigan ally.

For his part, Berrios has long argued it’s an issue of fairness, particularly in a race against someone like Kaegi, a wealthy asset manager from Oak Park who has poured $1.3 million of his own money into his campaign fund. Under state law, when a candidate contributes more than $100,000 of his own money, contribution limits are lifted.

Many attorneys who made contributions to Berrios did not know they were subject to the limits because the law is vaguely worded and conflicts with state law, Berrios attorney Kevin Forde said at Wednesday’s hearing.

“This is a significant restraint on lawyers participating in the political process,” added Forde, who contended politically active lawyers may opt to not take on certain clients if the law stands. “That has a real chilling effect on the lawyer’s First Amendment rights and the public’s right to get the lawyer they want.”

But Assistant State’s Attorney Paul Castiglione said lawyers already are limited by other “ethical restraints. ... What we’re talking about here are ethical rules that protect the operations of local government.” The idea, he said, is to prevent any quid-pro-quo dealings.

As both sides wait for a ruling, Berrios continues to accept contributions that exceed county limits — $750 in a nonelection year, $1,500 in an election year — from the very attorneys and law firms whose previous contributions triggered the fines by the ethics panel.

The ethics probe covered January to March 2017. It found Berrios, through the two campaign funds he controls, had accepted 41 contributions that exceeded the limits. At $1,000 per violation, the fine totaled $41,000.

The Tribune looked at Berrios’ contributions from April 2017 through February and found 28 out of the 33 lawyers and law firms named in the ethics panel’s report have given $184,700 to the assessor’s campaign fund. All but two of those donors exceeded the county’s contribution limits.

The Tribune and ProPublica also looked at campaign contributions from all property tax appeals lawyers and firms to the Committee to Elect Joseph Berrios Assessor. The time period covered the start of October, which is the first full fundraising quarter since the ethics board warned Berrios he was in violation of the limits.

The analysis showed the campaign fund received more than $276,000 from such interests, accounting for about 83 percent of the $332,000 in individual contributions made during that period.

Special interests who want to support Berrios’ re-election efforts also have the option of contributing to the the 31st Ward Democratic Organization fund he controls.

Berrios recently transferred $300,000 from the ward fund to his assessor’s account. Most of that money, too, came from property tax appeals lawyers. The 31st Ward fund collected $351,000 from those interests since October 2016 — 78 percent of the fund’s individual contributions during that period, the analysis found.

All of that has helped Berrios amass significant campaign funds, which he has been spending on TV ads that largely attack Kaegi. To start 2018, Berrios had $933,000 in his assessor campaign fund. Since then, he’s reported more than $164,000 in individual contributions, plus the $300,000 from his ward fund.

Kaegi, meanwhile, started the year with $163,000. Since then, he’s received $54,500 in contributions and pumped in $500,000 of his own money. Since launching his campaign in May, Kaegi raised about $336,000 from contributions and put in $1.3 million of his own money.

Berrios has long maintained that he’s well within his rights to take campaign contributions from attorneys who come to his office to get lowered appeals, which in the case of successful commercial building cases can net them millions of dollars in legal fees.

“I take contributions from whoever who wants to contribute to me,” Berrios told the Tribune on Wednesday. “There is no quid pro quo whatsoever. Every case is decided on its merits.”

The attorneys who contribute “just want to make sure that this office runs well and that everyone is treated fairly,” the assessor added. “It shows me that they agree with the work I’ve done at the assessor’s office.”

But Kaegi, who has characterized the contributions as part of a “pay-to-play” political culture, criticized Berrios for accepting them.

"Joe Berrios’ continued solicitation of campaign cash from property tax appeal lawyers doing business with the county is completely unethical,” Kaegi said in a statement. “By refusing to comply with the Board of Ethics rules, Berrios continues to demonstrate that he is only concerned with lining his campaign coffers.”

This report is a collaboration between the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois, an independent, nonprofit journalism organization.

hdardick@chicagotribune.com



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