15 members of Joe Berrios' family on county, state payrolls
BY DAN MIHALOPOULOS Staff Reporter email@example.com November 16, 2012 11:42PM
11-3-10 City Hall.......City Council meeting......Newly-elected Cook County Board President-elect Toni Preckwinkle congratulates newly-elected County Assesor Joe Berrios the morning after their victories......Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Updated: December 19, 2012 1:16PM
For Joe Berrios, the Cook County assessor who is also the county Democratic Party chairman, government is the family business.
That got him in trouble with the county ethics board, which called for Berrios to fire three family members who are on his staff and fined him $10,000 for violating the county?s anti-nepotism ban by hiring two of them -- his son and sister -- after he was elected assessor in 2010.
But the Berrios family's presence on government payrolls goes far beyond that. In September, his nephew Stephen Berrios got a job working for the Cook County judiciary. That made him the 13th member of the powerful politician's family on a county or state payroll, a Chicago Sun-Times examination of government records shows.
And two of Berrios' siblings have recently retired from government jobs and now get public pensions. Count them, and that makes 15 members of the Berrios family who receive a total of more than $1.05 million a year in wages and pension payments, records show.
All six of Berrios' brothers and sisters work for or recently retired from jobs with the county, the state or the Chicago Public Schools. All three of his children are state or county employees. So are three nephews, a sister-in-law and a brother-in-law.
Berrios declined an interview request for this story. Instead, he responded to questions about how so many of his family members have landed on government payrolls with a brief written statement: "Family members working in government isn't new in Chicago or any other large city in the United States. You are picking on the Puerto Rican kid from Cabrini-Green who's sitting alone at the lunch table while all the Irish kids sit together, laughing and grateful he's there."
He has ignored the fine imposed on him by the ethics board, as well as its call to fire his relatives from their high-ranking posts in the assessor's office. Berrios has said they are "very trustful" workers and argues that the ethics ordinance doesn't apply to him or to other elected county officials beside members of the Cook County Board.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has taken issue with him on that. Even though she endorsed Berrios when he ran for assessor two years ago, she sided with the ethics board in its legal dispute with him, said she thinks it's wrong to hire family members and promised not to do so herself.
One rank-and-file county employee has formally protested the hiring of a Berrios relative, saying the job opening should have been filled based on qualifications, not politics. Buvan Nathan, a longtime employee of the county's Department of Environmental Control, filed a complaint in March accusing the county of violating merit-hiring rules when it hired a Berrios nephew for a job that Nathan says he coveted.
The nephew, Erasmo Berrios, was 27 when the county hired him in 2008. Asked on his job application to list his work experience, the Berrios nephew said he had worked as an assistant manager at a tool store and at a Menards home store, holding each of those jobs for under two years.
He also had been a student intern seven times between 1999 and 2005 with the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, where his cousin -- Joe Berrios' daughter Maria Antonia "Toni" Berrios, now a state representative -- drew a paycheck as a contract employee before her father helped her win election to the Illinois House 10 years ago.
The county's inspector general told Nathan -- a 20-year department employee -- he filed his complaint too late. Nathan is appealing that decision to the Cook County state's attorney's office.
"Many in the department, including Mr. Nathan, were disappointed that someone without a day's seniority . . . in Cook County government or without any tangible experience or qualifications would arrive and leap above Mr. Nathan and his colleagues," one of Nathan's lawyer, David A. Miley, wrote in the appeal letter.
Joe Berrios began working for the county in 1980. Two years later, he became Illinois' first Hispanic state lawmaker. He was one of the three commissioners on the Cook County Board of Review -- which rules on property-assessment appeals -- from 1988 until becoming assessor. From his 31st Ward base on the Northwest Side, he also worked as a Springfield lobbyist and five years ago became chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.
His 2010 election as assessor over the reform-themed independent campaign of Forrest Claypool relied heavily on financial help from many of the same lawyers who appealed property assessments to him at the Board of Review and who continue to do so through a separate appeals process at the assessor's office.
As Berrios has risen through the ranks in politics and government, more of his family members have turned up in taxpayer-funded jobs, answering to him or his political allies.
Among the highest-paid of his relatives was brother Erasmo Berrios, who was hired by the state in 1984 and retired a year ago. His pay topped out in 2010 at $146,343.30, including overtime, working for the Illinois Department of Transportation.
The biggest controversy over Berrios family hiring -- his dispute with the county ethics board -- involved the hiring of his son Joseph E. "Joey" Berrios and his sister Carmen Berrios. Both had worked for him at the Board of Review.
For Joey Berrios-- who began working for the county less than a month after his 18th birthday -- the move to the assessor's staff on the day his father took office meant a raise of more than $20,100, or about 42 percent over his former salary. That brought his annual pay to $68,288. Joey Berrios, now 31, has since gotten two pay raises in the past two years and now is paid $72,444.
Carmen Berrios' salary went up more than $20,000, to almost $108,000 a year, when her brother became assessor. That's her current salary.
Vanessa Berrios -- a daughter who already was working in the assessor's office when Berrios got elected -- was immediately promoted by her father and given a $10,000 raise in December 2010.
The youngest Berrios on a government payroll appears to be George Erasmo Berrios Jr., a nephew of the assessor who was 22 when Secretary of State Jesse White hired him in August 2011 -- about five weeks after his uncle had hired the son of White?s top aide for a job in the assessor's office, the Sun-Times has reported.
The latest family member to become a full-time government employee, nephew Stephen Berrios, was hired Sept. 24 as a law clerk in the Office of the Chief Judge of the Cook County Circuit Court. An aide to Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans says he had nothing to do with the hiring, that it was the call of another judge, William Pileggi.
Pileggi says the nephew was the most deserving of several strong applicants interviewed and, in his first six weeks on the job, already has shown himself to be "diligent, hard-working and superior."
"Mr. Berrios not only had the academic achievements but had real-world experience as a practicing attorney in private practice," says Pileggi, adding that the new hire's family ties had nothing to do with him getting the job.
Pileggi says the Berrios nephew had worked as a "sole practitioner" but declined to provide a copy of the resume he submitted. Since becoming a lawyer a year ago, Stephen Berrios has listed his business address as his parents' home in Hanover Park and provided no business phone number, according to the Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois.
State records show he started a music-management firm in June. Besides his new county job, the only work experience he listed in his online profile on the job-networking website LinkedIn.com since finishing his studies at the John Marshall Law School was with JRJ Consultants. That's the firm of Jesse Ruben Juarez -- Joe Berrios' longtime top political adviser.