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Taxpayers get legal tab for Assessor Joe Berrios’ ethics fight over nepotism

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios  |  Sun-Times files

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios | Sun-Times files

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Updated: October 11, 2012 6:10AM

Cook County’s taxpayers are footing the bill for private legal counsel to represent Joe Berrios — the Cook County assessor, who is also chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party — in his fight against accusations he violated anti-nepotism rules by putting his son and sister on the payroll, records show.

Berrios is still losing the fight, though.

The private lawyer has failed to sway officials who say the powerful Democratic official flouted the county ethics ordinance by hiring his family members after being elected assessor almost two years ago. In its latest action in the nearly two-year-old case, the county’s Board of Ethics has rejected Berrios’ appeal of a finding it issued in June that he violated the ordinance and should fire his relatives and pay a $10,000 fine.

The ethics ordinance bars county officials from employing their own family members.

Berrios has argued that the county ordinance doesn’t apply to him and said the state’s attorney’s office backs him up in that view.

But in an order denying Berrios’ appeal, the ethics board says “there has been no ruling by a court or an opinion by the state’s attorney finding that the county has no authority” to apply the rules to the assessor or any other elected official.

State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez hasn’t publicly taken a stance on the question. Rather than represent Berrios in the ethics board’s investigation, Alvarez, citing a conflict of interest, asked Cook County Circuit Judge Richard J. Billik Jr. last year to appoint an outside lawyer as a special state’s attorney to represent Berrios.

The state’s attorney couldn’t represent him because that office advises both the assessor and the ethics board, Alvarez spokeswoman Sally Daly says.

Also, any decision on whether the ethics ordinance applies to Berrios’ office would also apply to the state’s attorney, so representing Berrios would create “the appearance of impropriety or self-dealing,” according to Daly.

The judge appointed lawyer Steven Puiszis, from the firm Hinshaw and Culbertson, to represent Berrios beginning in April 2011.

The firm has billed the county $4,773 for its work on the case, according to Cook County Commissioner Peter N. Silvestri, the Elmwood Park Republican who chairs a county board subcommmittee that’s set to review the bills at a closed-door meeting Monday.

The ethics board’s “final determination” in the Berrios case also reveals who filed the December 2010 complaint that prompted its investigation: Joe Scott, a former Harwood Heights village trustee. Scott says he doesn’t know Berrios but filed the complaint after reading a Chicago Sun-Times story about the assessor hiring his son, Joseph “Joey” Berrios, and his sister, Carmen Berrios.

“He is probably a great guy and a great father who is trying to take care of his family,” Scott says. “But if he wants to employ them, he should start a company and give them jobs, instead of doing it on the taxpayers’ dime.”

Berrios also has another daughter on his payroll, Vanessa Berrios, who had worked in the assessor’s office for years before he was elected to the county post. The ethics board hasn’t issued any ruling on whether Vanessa Berrios’ employment also violates the ethics ordinance.

Puiszis, Berrios’ lawyer, says he provided the ethics board with three state’s attorney’s opinions dating to 1994 that back his position. He would not provide copies of those documents.

Daley says the law doesn’t allow the state’s attorney’s office to disclose whether it has provided such advice.

The ethics board argues that the opinions cited by Piuszis do not address the specifics in dispute, “appear to contain inconsistent conclusions” and aren’t legally binding anyway.

If Berrios continues to reject the ethics panel’s authority and ignore its findings, the board could go to court to enforce the fine, according to its executive director, MaryNic Foster.

Puiszis says it doesn’t make sense for the ethics board to pursue the case and that Berrios and his family members are doing a good job.“It’s the first time in 33 years that an assessor got the tax bills out on time,” says Puiszis. “They want him to fire two people who were instrumental in getting that accomplished.”

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