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Joe Berrios defends hiring members of family as something JFK did

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios. File pho|  Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios. File photo | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Read our Nov. 16 story about Joe Berrios and his family — and see our Berrios family tree listing who makes what from which government job — at suntimes.com/news/watchdogs

Updated: December 30, 2012 4:02PM



SPRINGFIELD — Do Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios and President John F. Kennedy have anything in common beyond party affiliation?

The powerful Cook County Democratic Party chairman thinks they do — when it comes to employing family members.

Berrios compared himself Wednesday to the slain presidential icon when speaking publicly for the first time since the Chicago Sun-Times detailed how 13 members of his family have landed on Cook County and state payrolls.

Those relatives — and two Berrios siblings who recently retired from government jobs — are paid more than $1.05 million a year in wages and pension payments, the Sun-Times reported Nov. 16.

“Look at a great president that we had, President Kennedy. Who’d he appoint attorney general? You know? Same thing,” Berrios told the Sun-Times after testifying in a Senate committee in Springfield on Wednesday.

“You’re saying Bobby Kennedy wasn’t fit for the [U.S. attorney general’s] job? He appointed his brother,” Berrios continued, referring to JFK. “And in government, people help many people. This is part of the process.”

Berrios has run afoul of the Cook County ethics board, which called for him 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 — as soon as he became assessor in 2010.

Sister Carmen Berrios saw her salary rise more than $20,000, to almost $108,000, when she followed her brother from the Board of Review to the assessor’s office two years ago. Son Joseph “Joey” Berrios also made the switch, getting a 42 percent raise.

Joey is now paid $72,444 a year — the same as his sister Vanessa Berrios. She already was working in the assessor’s office when her father took office and he immediately promoted her and gave her a $10,000 raise.

A Berrios brother-in-law and a sister-in-law remain at the Board of Review, where they were hired during Berrios’ tenure as a commissioner there.

While walking in a Capitol hallway Wednesday, Berrios initially refused to say anything about the Sun-Times Watchdogs report.

“I’m not going to answer any more questions on that,” he said. And when pressed on the educational backgrounds of the family members in his office, Berrios wouldn’t respond beyond simply providing a shrug.

Berrios declined to answer questions about his relatives on public payrolls earlier this month, before the Sun-Times report was published.

At the time, his office issued a statement saying, “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.”

Berrios has ignored the ethics board ruling, and an outside lawyer has been appointed to represent him in the case at taxpayers’ expsense. He 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, she sided with the ethics board in its legal dispute with him, and she has said she thinks it’s wrong to hire family members and promised not to do so.

Asked Wednesday about Preckwinkle’s position on his family hiring, Berrios seemed to chalk it up to a casual disagreement.

“She’s got her position on it, and I have mine. Toni Preckwinkle and I don’t have to agree on everything,” he told the Sun-Times.

“The end result,” he said, “we’ll figure it all out.”



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