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Cook Co. OKs $529,000 to settle Berrios’ unlawful political firings

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios. | Sun-Times Files

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios. | Sun-Times Files

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Updated: August 19, 2013 3:48PM

County taxpayers are on the hook for the $529,000 to be paid to 11 employees who were fired for unlawful political reasons by Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios after he took office in 2010.

County commissioners approved the payout during Wednesday’s regularly scheduled board meeting. None singled out Berrios for criticism at the meeting, but some said county officeholders need a better understanding of the rules that curb political hiring.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Berrios, a political ally, is wrong when he insists his office isn’t bound by county ethics rules. Berrios, chairman of the Cook County Democrats, is an old-school politician who has unapologetically put family members on his public payroll. A spokeswoman for Berrios, citing the advice of the state’s attorney, said he had no comment Wednesday.

“I’ve never hired anybody in my family, any relative,” Preckwinkle said. “I think it’s inappropriate. It leads to the perception that government is for friends and family only and that’s neither good nor right.”

Still, she said Berrios has been a good assessor. “It’s because of the good work of the assessor that for two years now we got the tax bills out on time and we hadn’t done that for 34 years,” Preckwinkle said. She also praised Berrios for cooperating with county budget cuts.

A federally appointed county monitor assigned to sift through alleged violations of the Shakman Decree, which bans political hiring and firing for certain positions, decided the claims by the 11 former employees were legitimate and recommended the Cook County Board sign off on the payment.

Commissioner Peter Silvestri, a Republican from Elmwood Park, told the Sun-Times this week he sees no way around approving the payment, but he doesn’t like it. “The funds could be used for public safety or public health,” he said on Tuesday. “But failure to [approve the claims] would probably put us back in federal court, the options are not real great.”

Employee claims vary from $1,000 to $95,000.

“We have to get to the point where the federal court believes political hiring and firing is finished, and they remove the monitor. That’s the goal,” said Silvestri. “This is the latest chapter in a long saga. There will be more chapters, but the goal is to get to the end.”

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