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Lawyers warned their Berrios contributions could be illegal

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Donations from local tax attorneys paved the way for Joe Berrios to win the office of Cook County Assessor, but more than a dozen of those contributions may be illegal.

A county watchdog has launched an investigation and sent letters to 15 tax attorneys, warning their donations to Berrios exceeded county campaign contribution limits of $750 in the run-up to the November election.

MaryNic Foster, executive director of the county’s ethics board, can’t talk about an ongoing investigation. But election attorney Burt Odelson, who is representing Berrios and has copies of the notices sent to attorneys, issued a “cease and desist” letter to Foster, arguing the county campaign contribution law is illegal.

“Why would we follow an illegal law?” Odelson said.

A Cook County State’s Attorney Office opinion, first reported in the Sun-Times on Tuesday, questioned whether the county’s ethics ordinance detailing the contributions cap would withstand a court challenge.

The opinion says a court may find the ordinance unconstitutional because state law — not county ordinance — sets campaign contribution limits in local elections. Likewise, setting contribution caps for attorneys who appeal property tax cases in Cook County infringes on the Illinois Supreme Court’s powers to set rules governing attorney conduct, the opinion stated.

For now, that’s just a legal opinion and the local law stands.

“A state’s attorney’s opinion is a state’s attorney’s opinion — it’s not a legal decision. And the board is trying to figure out what the course is,” Foster said Tuesday, adding: “As I see it we’re still charged with enforcing the ethics ordinance as it’s written.”

Odelson said he and Berrios couldn’t rule out a lawsuit challenging the ordinance.

Odelson said contributions to Berrios went $1,000, $1,500 and even $2,000 over the cap. He also said Foster’s letters to attorneys instructed them to seek a refund of anything beyond the $750 amount allowed. He declined to release the names of those attorneys on Tuesday.

In the end, though, the county ordinance puts the onus on candidates to deal with the contributions. They’re required to return the money, according to the ordinance, and face a fine of to $5,000 if they’re found in violation.

Last fall county commissioners tightened the contribution laws. The goal, in part, was to make sure tax attorneys couldn’t influence, through contributions, decisions made by the assessor’s office, which sets real estate values for taxing purposes, or even the tax appeals board where Berrios had been a commissioner.

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