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Ex-city inspector general hired in Berrios nepotism case

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Updated: April 19, 2013 6:07AM

F or two years, Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios has insisted in the face of nepotism allegations that county ethics rules don’t apply to his office. Now, county ethics officials have hired a former City Hall inspector general to go to court and prove him wrong.

A judge recently approved the Cook County Ethics Board’s request and appointed David Hoffman a special state’s attorney in the Berrios case.

Hoffman, an attorney now in private practice, is a former federal prosecutor whose investigations of wrongdoing by city workers frequently put him at odds with then-Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Berrios has ignored the board’s recommendation that he fire three of his relatives who work for the assessor’s office, and he refuses to pay $10,000 in fines for violating the county’s ethics policy. He says the county’s ethics ordinance doesn’t apply to him or other elected officials besides Cook County Board members.

The ethics board is trying to affirm that its authority extends to all elected county officials.

The county has been footing the legal bill for Berrios, who also is the Cook County Democratic Party chairman, to fight the ethics panel. Since April 2011, a special state’s attorney from the law firm Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP has represented Berrios in his unsuccessful appeals of the ethics rulings against him. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said her office couldn’t represent Berrios or the ethics board in the dispute because doing so would pose a conflict of interest.

So far, Berrios’ fight with the ethics board has cost the county $24,716, according to the county board panel that reviews the bills.

That legal tab could grow now that the ethics board “intends to seek judicial enforcement” of its findings, court records show.

Hoffman — who was City Hall’s inspector general between 2005 and 2009 — did not return calls. He lost in the 2010 Democratic primary race for President Barack Obama’s old U.S. Senate seat. After endorsing Rahm Emanuel to succeed Daley as mayor in 2011, Hoffman has served since last May on the board of Emanuel’s high-profile initiative to attract private investment for public works projects in Chicago.

MaryNic Foster, the ethics board’s executive director, says, “The board is confident that Mr. Hoffman has the independence and the qualifications to represent the board in this case.”

The members of the ethics board sent a letter to Alvarez last year asking her to represent them in the dispute with Berrios or, if not, to appoint an outside attorney to get him to pay the fines. Alvarez’s office sought the appointment of a special state’s attorney soon after Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said in November she supported suing Berrios.

Erin Kelly, who works with Hoffman at the Chicago law firm Sidley Austin LLP, also was appointed to represent the ethics board in the case.

Berrios spokeswoman Kelley Quinn declined to comment on Hoffman’s appointment.

The ethics fight is over Berrios’ having these three relatives on his payroll:

His sister Carmen Berrios, who makes more than $107,000 a year as deputy assessor for tax services and public outreach.

His son Joseph E. “Joey” Berrios, who’s paid $72,444.32 a year as manager of an arm of the assessor’s office that examines homes as part of the valuation process.

His daughter Vanessa Berrios, who gets $73,904.48 a year as manager of industrial and commercial property valuations.

The ethics ordinance says county officials can’t have relatives working for them.

Berrios’ son and sister previously worked for him when he was a member of the Cook County Board of Review. He hired them at the assessor’s office when he took office there in 2010. The ethics board fined Berrios $5,000 for hiring each of them and urged him to fire them.

His daughter already was working in the assessor’s office when Berrios was elected, and he promoted her when took over as assessor, giving her a $10,000-a-year raise. The ethics board ruled that even though Berrios didn’t hire her, it violates the nepotism ban for her to work for him. It recommended her firing but didn’t issue a fine in that case.

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