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O’Connor defends Burke — sort of — on property tax appeals practice

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) | Sun-Times files

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) | Sun-Times files

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Updated: July 5, 2013 2:32PM

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) on Monday walked past a crowd of reporters waiting to question him about his property tax appeals practice, leaving a powerful colleague to defend him — sort of.

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, refused to pass judgment on whether Burke did anything wrong by voting for a 2002 resolution that sharply restricts the city’s ability to dispute appeals for property tax refunds.

But, O’Connor pointedly noted that the idea of having a $1 million cap makes sense and did not originate with Burke.

“The resolution clearly wasn’t something offered by or promoted by Ald. Burke. It was brought about by the corporation counsel. . . .in recognition that any time we intervene into an appeal, it costs us a certain amount of money and they wanted to make sure that those monies we would have to expend to intervene would be worthwhile,” O’Connor said.

“To use that as a basis for a story — it’s difficult to try to figure out if there’s something nefarious about that because it wasn’t his deal. . . . It wasn’t put in by him and it wasn’t put in with the idea that this was gonna help any practitioner — whether it was a sitting alderman or anyone else.”

Pressed repeatedly on whether Burke should have abstained, O’Connor said, “I have no idea as to whether or not that’s something he should or should not have voted on. I know that he’s very careful ordinarily in [not] voting on things that he thinks create a conflict for him. And while this may have benefitted a category of people, I don’t think it necessarily was something [where] you can point to which client at that time was gonna benefit.”

In stories in Sunday’s and Monday’s Chicago Sun-Times, investigative reporter Tim Novak detailed how Burke obtains tax cuts and refunds for his clients by handling their appeals before an obscure state agency, the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board.

In the last decade, Burke’s law firm has won more than $3.1 million in tax refunds and interest payments for his clients by persuading the state board to reduce assessments on real estate owned by the clients. When assessments are reduced, local governments lose tax revenue. The city alone has had to pay more than $600,000 to Burke’s clients.

The newspaper also reported that Burke was part of a 47-0 City Council vote in 2002 to prohibit the city from contesting requested reductions of less than $1 million. Burke has been known to ask for property assessment cuts of exactly $999,999.

Mara Georges, longtime corporation counsel for former Mayor Richard M. Daley, told Novak she suggested the resolution because she wanted rules on which property assessment appeals to challenge. Contesting cases costs money, she said, so the city has to decide when to bother, and she didn’t want to be accused of unfairly “picking and choosing.”

On Monday, O’Connor acknowledged that it’s time to take another look.

“Before we say this should be changed, we ought to allow the current corporation counsel under the new administration to take a look and determine whether or not it makes sense in their reading of the way that these things are handled,” O’Connor said.

“There’s a common sense cap, no matter what you have because you’re not gonna go out and buy an appraisal for $50,000 if what you can save is, potentially $20,000.”

Until the cap is lifted, the cloud of at least the appearance of conflict will continue to hang over Burke. But, O’Connor said, “I don’t know that there’s any benefit to Ed Burke. The fact of the matter is he’s in the business of property tax reduction and, to my way of understanding it, there’s no prohibition for him to practice in that area.”

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