County Assessor Berrios rejects inspector general’s subpoena
BY LISA DONOVAN Cook County Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org October 16, 2012 1:12AM
Ald. Ray Suarez (31st) joins Joe Berrios on stage. the night Berrios won the race for Cook County Assessor. (Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times)
Updated: November 17, 2012 6:24AM
Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios is thumbing his nose at a subpoena issued by the county’s Inspector General seeking documents about an employee who allegedly received an illegal property tax break.
By refusing to turn over the paperwork the county’s top watchdog Berrios is poised, once again, for a legal battle.
Last summer, the county’s ethics board recommended Berrios fire the son and daughter he hired to work for him in the assessor’s office and hit him with a $10,000 fine for flouting county anti-nepotism rules. He ignored both, saying ethics rules don’t apply to him — only to the county board commissioners, board president and their staffs. But with County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s blessing, the ethics board is pushing to hire a special prosecutor to recover the fine.
The assessor, whose office helps determine business and residential property bills, is now ignoring Inspector General Patrick Blanchard’s subpoena for documents about homeowners’ exemptions received by Lewis Towers, a manager in the office.
Initially, Blanchard’s office sent a “confidential” letter dated Aug. 15 to Berrios’ chief of staff Robert Kruse, asking for applications for homeowners exemptions on Towers’ two homes, one in Chicago and the other in suburban Sauk Village, according to documents obtained by the Sun-Times.
Cook County residential property owners can only claim one homeowner exemption — and that’s on the residence where they live full-time.
Berrios’ legal counsel, Khang P. Trinh, responded in writing Aug. 21 requesting the inspector general file a Freedom of Information Act request for the same information, documents show.
Blanchard’s office responded with an Aug. 23 subpoena, requesting property tax exemption forms as well as Towers’ personnel file.
The next volley came from Berrios’ office with his legal counsel Trinh writing to the inspector general: “The Independent Inspector General does not have the authority to issue a subpoena against separately elected officials pursuant to the ordinance.” Blanchard’s office was again instructed to submit an FOIA.
In the letter, Khang thanked the inspector general’s office for “bringing our attention to this particular matter” and that the assessor’s office had launched its own probe of the matter “as it does with all ‘squeal appeals’ that it receives.”
“Squeal” is a reference to those who file complaints about employees who file homeowners exemptions on multiple residences.
It’s been quiet since Sept. 7, when Vincent Williams in the inspector general’s office sent a letter to the assessor’s legal counsel explaining the inspector general has the authority to “investigate corruption, fraud, waste, mismanagement, unlawful political discrimination and misconduct in operations of County Government under the Offices of the President as well as the separately elected County officials…”
More than a month later, the issue has yet to be resolved, Blanchard told the Sun-Times on Monday.
“The IG’s office has two options — either to enforce it in court or negotiate a resolution,” he said.
“And at this juncture it doesn’t appear a negotiated resolution to the production of the documents is forthcoming.”
Blanchard said that his office didn’t submit a FOIA for the information because the information he was seeking, including specific personnel information, isn’t contained in public records that would be released under a freedom of information request.
Berrios, who also is the head of the Cook County Democratic Party, said the matter was resolved internally — and there’s no need for an inspector general probe.
“We called him in, we went over the complaint. He paid the money back,” Berrios said.
Towers had to pay back little more than $4,000 in savings he received on an exemption for his South Side residence; he was only entitled to the one on his primary residence in Sauk Village where he serves as the mayor.
He was suspended from his county job for two weeks. And while maintaining his title of manager, Towers lost his position overseeing the Markham branch of the assessor’s office; he’s now working downtown.
But Blanchard said the in-house investigation doesn’t mean his probe is over.
“That’s gratifying that the assessor looked at it, but it’s important that a number of additional questions be posed and answered [such as] how could this happen? And who else knew about it?”
“The mere suspension of an employee does not end the question,” Blanchard said, adding: “This office is not in a position to walk away from these important questions.”
But Berrios is firm in his stance: “We believe he doesn’t have jurisdiction over us at all. We have a state’s attorney opinion telling us that.”
That opinion was not immediately available.