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County ethics board to Assessor Berrios: Fire your son and sister

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios talks during meeting with Sun-Times Editorial Board Monday June 4 2012. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios talks during a meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Monday June 4, 2012. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 27, 2012 6:24AM

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios should fire his son and sister, two of three relatives who call him boss in the government tax office he was elected to run in 2010.

That’s according to the county ethics board, whose members investigated the hirings and issued a “finding of violation” detailed in a report marked “confidential” and obtained by the Sun-Times. The board found he violated his fiduciary duties as well as a prohibition on hiring relatives laid out in the county’s ethics ordinance.

“Maintaining the public trust and confidence of those that government serves, is a key component of being a fiduciary. The hiring and or employing of family members as County employees undermines this public trust,” according to the three-page report signed by Board of Ethics Chairperson Roseann Oliver. The report goes on: “Rather than promote an open and transparent governmental hiring process, this conduct promotes the opposite, a closed and opaque process.”

For that reason, the board recommends Berrios take decisive action — which could make holiday dinners a little tough to endure.

“It is the Board of Ethics’ recommendation that the Assessor remove his sister and son from the County Assessor’s Office’s payroll, and fill those positions in accordance with the proper and customary hiring process, and not by relatives as defined by the Cook County Ethics Ordinance,” Oliver wrote in a report dated June 20.

Berrios hired son and namesake Joseph “Joey’’ Berrios as a $48,000-a-year residential analyst and sister Carmen Berrios as director of taxpayer services at a salary of $86,000 just after the November 2010 election. The assessor later promoted both, and both have since seen a few pay boosts. The younger Joe Berrios, now chief of the land division, is now earning $69,285 annually while the assessor’s sister — a deputy assessor of taxpayer services — is making $107,841, according to payroll records.

Before the election, Berrios’ son and sister worked for Joe Berrios when he was a commissioner in the Cook County Board of Review

The ethics board also looked into the employment Joe Berrios’ daughter, Vanessa Berrios, but the report makes no mention of her.

Vanessa Berrios was already working in the assessor’s office when her father was elected. But Joe Berrios promoted his daughter and gave her a $10,000 raise and later another nearly $1,000 raise. Her salary is now $69,285.48, county payroll records show.

Oliver couldn’t be reached for comment and MaryNic Foster, the ethic’s board’s executive director, declined comment until any appeals process is complete.

Already, Foster and county Inspector General Patrick Blanchard issued an “advisory.”

While the board can make the recommendations — that’s about all the members can do. So the ethics ordinance has very little teeth, officials have said in the past. That’s particularly true when an elected official running an office is in violation and is called on to essentially police himself, observers say.

The board can enforce a fine, and even go to Cook County Circuit Court and ask a judge to compel an elected leader to pay up.

In this case, the board assessed a fine of $10,000 — $5,000 for each of the relatives he hired.

Berrios, learned about the report when the Sun-Times contacted him Monday. He shrugged it off saying the ethics board doesn’t have jurisdiction over his office.

“To me it’s not big deal, because I’ve been told by the state’s attorney they have no power over us,” Berrios said, adding: “In fact the state’s attorney hired outside counsel for me in this case.”

Asked whether he’s going to consider removing his relatives from the payroll, Berrios said: “I’m not going to do anything until my attorney tells me what the hell I should do.”

He said his relatives work 40 hours a week and were “instrumental” in helping the county get second installment tax bills, set to arrive in property owners’ mailboxes in the coming days, out on time — the first time in 30-plus years. The assessor sets the value of real estate for taxing purposes.

“I expect more out of them than anybody who works for me.”

He says his relatives are more than qualified to do the job, noting that they worked for him when he was at the county’s tax appeals Board of Review and the ethics board didn’t come after him then. He also notes that he didn’t technically “hire” his relatives, but instead “transferred” them to his office.

Berrios adamantly denies he’s an old-school politician stacking the payroll with friends and family.

“If I was an old school politician, I would have picked up the phone, had someone else hire them and I wouldn’t even be answering these questions,” Berrios said.

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