Updated: November 28, 2013 6:51AM
For everybody out there thinking the federal trial of two former Cook County Board of Review employees could bring down Assessor Joe Berrios, don’t hold your breath.
The case against Thomas Hawkins and John Racasi went to the jury Friday without any solid evidence to support their secretly tape-recorded claims that Berrios, then a Board of Review commissioner, was “in cahoots” with their alleged bribery scheme.
In fact, it was just as reasonable to conclude from trial testimony that Hawkins in particular was just telling “tall tales,” as his defense attorney asserted, with his claims of influence with Berrios and personal knowledge of his corrupt activities.
There is no indication Hawkins ever produced Berrios for a promised meeting with an FBI mole to discuss a plan to pay bribes for lowering tax assessments. This must have been a particular disappointment to Hawkins because he seemed very intent on procuring a belly dancer for the private confab, wiretap transcripts show.
I’m not writing this to be an apologist for Berrios or to give him a clean bill of health. There could be a whiff of truth in some of those “tall tales.”
I definitely believe this wasn’t the first time Hawkins and Racasi took a payoff to lower an assessment, although the $1,500 paid by the mole might have been their biggest score to date judging by their excitement. Nor were they the only Board of Review staffers engaged in such activity, the evidence suggests, although they were the only ones charged.
But let’s have a reality check. The undercover recordings by corrupt police officer Ali Haleem were made in late 2008 and early 2009.
Clearly, federal agents had Berrios in their sights and thought Haleem could lead them to him.
But just as clearly, the time frame alone will tell you they didn’t get there, or he would have been charged by now. He hasn’t been.
By good fortune, as I was walking through the County Building later Friday with WLS reporter Bill Cameron, we ran into Berrios just as he got off the elevator.
Cameron asked him how he was sleeping these days, a reference to the early trial testimony that suggested to some that the U.S. Attorney’s office would be coming for him next.
“I’m sleeping real well,” Berrios said confidently.
Although Hawkins can be heard on the tapes complaining about the FBI investigating the Board of Review, suggesting widespread knowledge at the time, Berrios denied knowing anything about it.
“I’ve never talked to them. They’ve never talked to me,” Berrios said, referring to federal agents.
Berrios called the allegations of Hawkins and Racasi “total b.s.” from “two idiot kids.” Hawkins is 49 and Racasi 52.
“They got caught up in one of their own imaginary things,” Berrios said.
Maybe not so imaginary, when you hear Hawkins and Racasi explain on tape how they had to conspire cooperatively with other Board of Review staffers because each tax reduction needs approval from two of the three commissioners.
As analysts for residential properties, the two men explained they took only small payoffs and that the big scores were reserved for those handling valuable downtown commercial properties.
“I don’t like being greedy,” Racasi said. “I get a paycheck, and this is a supplement, and I’m happy. And the big cats do it. You know big cats do it over our head.”
Hawkins and Racasi told Haleem they are brothers (same mother, it’s complicated).
The defense doesn’t deny that Hawkins and Racasi took the money, but they say it wasn’t really a bribe because the men didn’t intend to take any action to cut Haleem’s taxes. Nearly everybody got a tax cut at the Board of Review during the Berrios years, they pointed out.
Hawkins also describes himself as a cousin of Board of Review Commissioner Larry Rogers Jr., for whom he and Racasi worked.
But he said he preferred to deal with Berrios because Rogers was “so [bleeping] square and straight forward.” Rogers denies they are related.
Berrios said both Hawkins and Racasi came to the tax appeals board from former state Sen. Rickey Hendon’s political operation, and the wiretap transcripts are full of references to Hendon, although nothing alleging illegal activity that I saw.
The common demoninator is that Haleem, the mole, was introduced to Hawkins by Dean Nichols, a former campaign treasurer to Hendon. Nichols is under indictment in a state grant kickback scheme also involving Haleem.