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Cook County tax officials take excess campaign donations from appeals firms, ethics panel says

Friday, April 13, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick and Ray Long

ook County officials who decide the outcome of property tax appeals accepted more than half a million dollars in campaign donations from law firms and other businesses that help challenge tax bills, far more than permitted under a county ethics ordinance, records obtained by the Tribune reveal.

The contributions are documented in “notices of violation” the county Board of Ethics sent in late March to Assessor Joseph Berrios and Board of Review commissioners Larry Rogers Jr., Dan Patlak and Michael Cabonargi. All together, they were told to return about $440,000 of about $600,000 contributed by the law firms or other companies involved in the property tax appeals business.

The campaign committees controlled by those officials accepted the contributions during the last nine months of 2017 as Berrios and two members of the three-person review board prepared to seek re-election in the March primaries. They have been asked to return the disallowed funds by Monday.

The ethics board also cited Berrios and all three commissioners last summer over contributions made during an earlier six-month period. The commissioners returned the excess contributions identified in that round of notices to the donors, but Berrios went to court to fight the limits on donations. A judge ruled against Berrios last month, and Berrios is appealing the decision.

Hoping to prevent quid-pro-quo politics, the county board set caps in October 2016 on contributions from people or businesses that have “sought official action by the county within the preceding four years.” Donations are limited to $750 in a non-election year and $1,500 in an election year.

The change to the county ethics code received little attention at the time, but the overall issue was in the spotlight last year after the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois reported that the property tax appeal industry has provided the bulk of Berrios’ campaign contributions and that the industry received more reductions under Berrios than in previous years.

Fritz Kaegi, who defeated Berrios in a three-way Democratic primary election in March, campaigned on a pledge not to take contributions from attorneys, consultants and appraisers who are involved in property tax appeals. He took that step, Kaegi said this week, because accepting such contributions “creates at least the appearance of a pay-to-play environment.”

He also said the county limits may not be tough enough. “It could certainly be made stronger,” Kaegi said of the county ethics code. “We think the citizenry of Cook County want to have no donations from folks practicing before the offices.”

The issue was further highlighted in January, when the ethics board fined Berrios $41,000for refusing to return earlier contributions and again when he went to court to try to void the county ordinance that allowed for those fines.

But Board of Review commissioners Cabonargi and Rogers, Democrats who ran unopposed, flew under the public radar. Patlak, a Republican, wasn’t up for re-election this year.

Patlak, who continued to accept contributions above the limit while the Berrios case was in trial court, told the Tribune he’ll return the money unless the ethics board decides it does not have to be returned while the appeal was pending. After the trial court ruling, Patlak held a fundraiser, informing contributors they were limited to a maximum of $750 in a non-election year, he added.

Rogers and Cabonargi did not respond to Tribune questions about the notices.

According to the violation notices the board sent since then, dozens of law firms — along with companies that assess property values to bolster appeal cases — contributed $44,800 more than allowed to Rogers, or about 40 percent of what his campaign committee received during the nine-month period; $26,600 above limits to Patlak, or about 55 percent of what his committee brought in; and $68,950 too much to Cabonargi, or about 62 percent of his campaign’s receipts.

If the commissioners fail to return the money, they could face fines of up to $1,000 for each excess contribution. That could be as much as $60,000 for Rogers, $40,000 for Patlak and $97,000 for Cabonargi.

Berrios, whose excess contributions total $303,800, faces potential fines of up to $158,000. Much of that money came in after he was notified last July of the earlier excess contributions and fined $41,000 in January for not returning the money. Despite those actions, his court case kept the campaign spigot flowing.

Citing the appeal in that case, Berrios through a spokeswoman declined comment on the latest notices of violation. But Kevin Forde, Berrios’ attorney, said he expected Berrios won’t pay back the money while the case is pending. “If it goes our way, it won’t have to be paid,” he said.

Law firms often go first to the assessor to seek a reduction on behalf of clients. If that fails, they can then take their case to the Board of Review.

None of the attorneys contacted by the Tribune at six firms that gave to all four of the officials would speak on the record about why they contributed.

Most Cook County residents do not even know the Board of Review exists, a situation that allows for officials to operate with little public scrutiny, said Colin Williams, policy director at the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

“It certainly appears from the amount and breadth of the contributions that there is a real risk of a conflict of interest in that relationship between the elected officials who hear property tax appeals and the attorneys bringing those appeals,” Williams said. “The law is there to prevent a direct conflict of interest from arising.”

The violation notices were sent out after a judge in mid-March ruled against Berrios in his lawsuit to void county limits. That case, which stemmed from Berrio’s earlier refusal to return $62,250 in contributions that topped the limits in late 2016 and early 2017, put ethics board enforcement efforts on hold.

Berrios is appealing the ruling, which lifted the hold on enforcement, freeing the ethics board to proceed with new enforcement actions.

Berrios maintains the county did not have the authority to set campaign limits that are more stringent than those in state law. And he notes that when a candidate contributes $100,000 or more to their own campaigns, state limits are lifted. Kaegi, a wealthy asset manager, contributed $1.55 million to his campaign — which Berrios said would create an unlevel playing field if his contributions were limited.

Each of the law firms and companies in the property tax appeals business that made excess contributions also received notices of violation in late March, although none received them last year when the first batch was sent out. The firms were warned that future contributions above the limits could result in fines of $1,000 for each infraction.

When law firms win an appeal on behalf of a client, they often get a cut of that reduction. In the case of large commercial properties, those reductions can run into the millions of dollars.

Six of the law firms cited in the notices gave money to the campaigns of every elected county official with the power to decide the fate of their cases by contributing to Berrios and all three Board of Review commissioners. Four of those firms doubled down by giving to both Berrios’ election fund and the 31st Ward Democratic organization fund that he controls and used to funnel money into his failed re-election bid.

Of the $98,000 contributed by the firms that gave to all four officials, about $84,000 must be returned, according to the notices.

Four firms — Elliott and Associates Attorneys; Katsaros & Steffey; Siegel and Callahan; and Steven B. Pearlman & Associates — all gave excess contributions to Berrios, his 31st Ward fund and all the three tax appeals commissioners during the last nine months of 2017, according to the notices.

Two more firms — McCracken, Walsh, Carlisle & de LaVan; and Schmidt, Salzman & Moran— gave excess contributions to the three commissioners and to one of the two funds controlled by Berrios, the documents showed.

Twitter @RayLong

Twitter @ReporterHal

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