Berrios on bribery case testimony: ‘It’s a lie’
BY KIM JANSSEN and MITCH DUDEK Staff Reporters October 23, 2013 8:40PM
Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios | Sun-Times files
Updated: November 25, 2013 1:21PM
Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios had one word Wednesday to describe testimony linking him to allegedly corrupt property tax adjustment deals in a federal bribery trial:
Berrios has not been charged with a crime. And he called wiretapped conversations played in court Tuesday of two former Cook County employees connecting him to a scheme in which money was exchanged for lower property taxes “a total lie.”
Asked if he accepted any bribes, Berrios responded: “Absolutely not, that’s totally ridiculous . . . that doesn’t even deserve an answer.”
Berrios, who’s previously taken heat for adding numerous family members to the county payroll, said he has not been questioned by the feds and has not spoken to an attorney about the matter.
Berrios spoke to the Sun-Times as the trial of Tommy Hawkins and John Racasi continued in federal court with further testimony from Ali Haleem — the crooked former Chicago cop who cooperated with the feds in an effort to reduce his own sentence.
Haleem, who secretly taped both defendants as they implicated Berrios in their alleged scheme to take bribes to lower property tax bills, previously pleaded guilty to taking bribes from tow-truck drivers, and to selling guns from his squad car to a known felon.
On the stand Wednesday, Haleem testified that he’d met with Berrios on at least one occasion, and that Hawkins and Racasi’s claim that they could get him a meeting with Berrios to discuss the bribery scheme was one of the few promises they made that he took at face value.
But Haleem came under a stern cross-examination from Racasi’s lawyer, Heather Winslow, admitting that in addition to his tow truck and gun scams he’d also tried to help a pal beat a prostitution bust, and had hidden his ill-gotten loot in his ceiling at his Southwest Side home.
He acknowledged the huge incentive to help the feds catch Hawkins and Racasi: a plea deal that could allow him to serve just 20 months in prison for crimes which carry a maximum sentence of 40 years.
Though Berrios’ name didn’t come up as often in court as it did during Tuesday’s sensational testimony, further wiretapped conversations Racasi and Hawkins and other Board of Review employees had with Haleem about the alleged scam were played for jurors.
In one, former Board of Review employee Matt Panush told Haleem, “We’re finally getting some results — finally feel like we’re progressing here. It’s about time.”
Panush, who hasn’t been charged with any crime and didn’t respond to requests for comment Wednesday, has since left the Board of Review, and now works as a property tax analyst for law firm Worsek & Vivon, according to the firm’s website. The firm has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the political funds of Board of Review commissioners, including more than $42,000 to Berrios and nearly $11,000 to Larry Rogers, who employed Hawkins and Racasi, state campaign-finance records show.
Berrios told the Sun-Times that Hawkins and Racasi are “two idiots” who “worked for Larry.”
He was referring to Rogers, who worked alongside Berrios in Berrios’ previous government position, on the Cook County Board of Review — a three-person board charged with granting or denying property tax appeals.
In transcripts of the recordings, Hawkins says Rogers is his cousin and boss, but that Berrios is his “number one guy” when it comes to rigging appeals.
“I’d rather work with him more than I work with my own boss. And my own boss is my cousin . . .. He’s just so f------ square and straightforward.”
Testimony Wednesday from Haleem suggested Rogers was not involved. Hawkins and Racasi wanted to cut another Board of Appeals employee, Lonzo Wooten, out of the scam because he was “going to go tell Larry what [they] were doing,” Haleem testified.
Contacted Wednesday night, Rogers said Hawkins was not his cousin, and he could not explain why Hawkins would say otherwise. He said he met Hawkins during his 2004 campaign and met Racasi around 2006.
“The actions of those two do not reflect the over 100 employees who work hard every day at the Board of Review. It’s obviously unacceptable behavior I would never condone,” he said.