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Jury in county property tax bribery trial to resume deliberations Monday

Joseph Berrios’ sister Carmen leaves Dirksen Federal Building after testifying  case two ex-Cook County employees who are accused taking

Joseph Berrios’ sister, Carmen, leaves the Dirksen Federal Building after testifying in the case of two ex-Cook County employees who are accused of taking bribes by former Chicago cop Ali Haleem. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 27, 2013 6:08AM

Two Cook County employees who allegedly took bribes to lower property tax bills face a nervy weekend after a federal jury hearing their case went home Friday night without reaching a verdict.

Thomas Hawkins, 49, and John Racasi, 52, claim they were simply “blowing smoke” when they were caught on tape boasting that they could use their jobs at the Cook County Board of Review and connections to then Commissioner Joe Berrios to help homeowners fiddle their taxes.

But prosecutors say the men were deadly serious when they accepted a $1,500 bribe to slash property taxes at three homes in 2008.

Jurors left the Dirksen Federal Court building at 6 p.m. Friday after deliberating for two and a half hours. They are due to resume Monday morning.

Though Hawkins and Racasi are small-fry, the case attracted wider interest because both repeatedly implicated Berrios in secretly-recorded conversations played during the week-long trial, claiming he was “in cahoots” with the scam.

The Cook County Assessor and county Democratic Party chairman — who hasn’t been charged with any crime — on Wednesday told the Sun-Times those claims were “b-------,” and he got support during closing arguments on Friday from both lawyers for Hawkins and Racasi and the government.

Hawkins’ attorney John Beal said Hawkins “told all sorts of tales about the influence he had,” adding that “Berrios is a big shot — there’s no evidence that [Hawkins] had any access to him, let alone the ability to influence him.”

Instead Hawkins and Racasi “ripped off” a government informant by claiming they could fix property tax appeals, safe in the knowledge that “79 percent of appellants got a reduction in 2008” without any corrupt help, Beal said.

Since neither man did anything in return for the cash, the payments weren’t really bribes, he argued.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret Schneider agreed that the defendants didn’t want their boss, Commissioner Larry Rogers Jr., to know about the scam, but said they “offered a special service to make sure you weren’t one of that bottom 21 percent” who didn’t get a tax cut.

They rigged appeals by comparing a bribe-paying property owner’s home to only the very lowest taxed neighbors, she said.

And they also “spread the love” and paid off coworkers who weren’t charged, including former Board of Review employee Matt Panush, she alleged.

Berrios’s sister, Carmen Berrios, who worked for Berrios at the Board of Review and now works for him at the assessors’ office, briefly took the stand Friday to testify for the defense. She agreed with Racasi’s lawyer, Heather Winslow, that she saw her role at the Board of Review as trying to help taxpayers reduce their bills, if possible.


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