Judge rules against Berrios, says county watchdog can investigate tax office
BY BRIAN SLODYSKO Staff Reporter January 16, 2014 4:26PM
A Cook County judge this week ruled against County Assessor Joe Berrios, giving county Inspector General Patrick Blanchard the green light to investigate fraud, corruption and waste in the tax office. | Sun-Times files
Updated: January 16, 2014 5:13PM
Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios has publicly said the county’s watchdog has no authority to investigate him, but a Wednesday court ruling says the inspector general has every right to scrutinize operations at the tax office.
In the ruling, a Cook County circuit court judge upheld the ability of the office of the inspector general to investigate corruption and fraud in not just Berrios’ office, but all other independently elected offices, according Alexander Polikoff, who represented Inspector General Pat Blanchard in court.
“There’s been uncertainty over whether the IG has the authority to investigate,” Polikoff said. “The court finds the legal arguments made by the assessor that the county doesn’t have the power to require the assessor to cooperate are not persuasive.”
Berrios, who is also head of the Cook County Democratic Party, could not immediately be reached for comment. Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, whose office represented Berrios, could not immediately comment.
Polikoff said he anticipates Berrios and Alvarez will appeal the ruling to a higher court.
The standoff between Berrios and Blanchard started in August of 2012, when Blanchard requested records related to tax breaks on two properties owned by a Berrios office manager, Lewis Towers.
Berrios’ staff answered with its own letter at the time telling him to file a Freedom of Information Act request. Blanchard fired back with a subpoena later that same month, and Berrios’ office told Blanchard he has no authority to issue a subpoena “against separately elected officials.”
Blanchard general counsel Steven Cyranoski sent one final letter to Berrios’ staff in September, but Blanchard’s complaint said Berrios’ office never wrote back.
That letter said the ordinance governing the Inspector General gives it authority to “investigate corruption, fraud, waste, mismanagement, unlawful political discrimination and misconduct” in offices under Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle “as well as the separately elected county officials.”
And while Berrios said the matter involving his employee was resolved internally — he said Towers paid back the money he got from the tax break — Blanchard filed the suit.
“We’re very pleased. This is a very strong statement by the court in support of the office,” Blanchard said.
Blanchard added that he implications of the opinion are broader than just his fight with Berrios’ office. Blanchard said a number of county office have “stiff-armed” his investigations in the past, including the county Treasurer’s office, the Board of Review, the Office of the Recorder of Deeds and the Sheriff’s Merit Board.
“It’s been a few years coming,” Blanchard said. “We certainly have been prevented from following up on a number of issues in these offices and I think this should pave the way.”