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Preckwinkle seeking legal action against county assessor

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios 2010. She supported him his run for assessor. |

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios in 2010. She supported him in his run for assessor. | Sun-Times Files

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Updated: July 5, 2013 9:56AM

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Wednesday she supports legal action to punish county Assessor Joseph Berrios for putting family members on the payroll.

Berrios — who also is chairman of the county Democratic Party — has a son, daughter and sister on the payroll of the assessor’s office but says county ethics rules that forbid employing relatives don’t apply to him.

In a Sept. 19 letter obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the members of the county’s ethics board asked the state’s attorney to represent them in their case against Berrios or appoint an outside lawyer “who will take action” to force him to pay $10,000 in fines for flouting the nepotism ban.

The ethics board also has called on Berrios to fire his relatives. He has ignored that non-binding recommendation — once defending his family members as “very trustful” employees — and declined to pay the fines.

Preckwinkle backed Berrios when he ran for assessor in 2010. But she says the ethics rules should apply to all of the county’s elected officials.

“The Board of Ethics has decided to seek the appointment of a special state’s attorney to recover the fines imposed upon the assessor and we back them,” Preckwinkle said in a statement sent Wednesday to the Sun-Times. “I support the provisions of the ordinance and we’re going to seek representation to enforce it. I’ve talked to Joe and he’s said he’s going to pursue his own interest.”

Berrios spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said he would not comment Wednesday on the latest developments in the dispute. Steven Puiszis, the private lawyer who was appointed last year to represent Berrios in the matter, predicted he would prevail in court.

“If President Preckwinkle wants to press the issue, we’re going to have to litigate the issue,” Puiszis said. “It’s an unfortunate waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Berrios hired his son, Joseph E. “Joey” Berrios, and his sister, Carmen Berrios, after he was elected assessor. They had worked for him when he was a commissioner at the county’s Board of Review, which rules on appeals of property tax assessments.

Carmen Berrios is paid $107,841 a year as deputy assessor for tax services and public outreach, according to county payroll records.

Berrios’ namesake son has risen swiftly through the ranks to become manager of a field unit that examines residential properties as part of the valuation process. His annual salary is $72,444.32.

The assessor pays the same salary to daughter Vanessa Berrios, his manager of industrial and commercial valuations. She was a long-time employee in the assessor’s office and was being paid $58,344 a year before her father took office and immediately promoted her.

The ethics board fined Berrios $5,000 for employing his son and another $5,000 for hiring his sister.

Officials have said his daughter’s employment in the assessor’s office also violates the ethics ordinance. But the ethics board did not issue a fine in the case of Vanessa Berrios, records show.

Contributing: Lisa Donovan

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