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Preckwinkle dumps top Cook County ethics official who fought Berrios over nepotism

MaryNic Foster who was dumped after five years as executive director Cook County Ethics Board by Cook County Board President

MaryNic Foster, who was dumped after five years as executive director of the Cook County Ethics Board by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

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Updated: August 31, 2013 6:06AM

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has fired a top county ethics official who was trying to punish Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios for putting relatives on his payroll.

MaryNic Foster was quietly dumped from her $110,355-a-year post in May after five years as executive director of the county’s Board of Ethics.

With Preckwinkle’s support, the ethics board had hired attorney David Hoffman, the former City of Chicago inspector general, earlier this year to press its case that Berrios should pay $10,000 in fines and fire three family members.

Berrios, who also chairs the Cook County Democratic Party, has ignored ethics board rulings against him. He maintains that the county’s ethics rules apply only to the Cook County Board, not to the assessor or other countywide officials whose positions were established by the state of Illinois.

Foster said top aides to Preckwinkle didn’t give her a reason for removing her from the post she’s held since 2008 — a job that’s exempt from rules that ban political considerations from influencing county hiring or firing decisions.

“I was advised that the president wanted to go in a different direction,” Foster said. “I believe that I was doing a good job. Every elected official has the right to put who they want in place there.

“Whoever comes in will have their hands full.”

Preckwinkle’s deputy chief of staff, Kimberly Foxx, has been interim director of the ethics board since Foster’s dismissal. Foxx would not say why Preckwinkle dumped Foster.

Maribeth Vander Weele, one of five ethics board commissioners, said she agreed with Preckwinkle’s decision because “the office needed to be professionalized. It has no investigative procedures. Case notes are hand-written. There are no standards for professional conduct. As aggressive as this office is, we need to make sure every investigation is thorough and objective.”

Foxx said Preckwinkle will appoint a permanent replacement to take the post in early August. Neither Foxx nor a spokeswoman for Preckwinkle would say who that will be.

Foxx said she did not know the status of the ethics board’s case against Berrios.

Foster and the ethics board had found Berrios violated the county ethics ordinance’s ban on nepotism, fined him $10,000 and called on him to fire his son, daughter and sister, who have been working for him since he was sworn in as assessor in 2010.

The ethics board hired Hoffman to go to court to enforce its ruling and affirm the board’s authority over the assessor’s office. No lawsuit has been filed. Hoffman did not return calls.

County officials recently agreed to pay a total of $529,000 to 11 people Berrios was found to have fired wrongly after he became assessor nearly three years ago.

Berrios is also fighting county Inspector General Patrick Blanchard’s efforts to investigate allegations of wrongdoing in his office. Blanchard is suing to assert his authority over the assessor.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office is trying to get Blanchard’s case against Berrios thrown out.

At the time Foster was booted from the ethics post, she also was investigating allegations of wrongdoing by county Treasurer Maria Pappas, prompted by a 2011 report by WBBM-Channel 2 and the Better Government Association that two treasurer’s office employees ran personal errands for Pappas.

Pappas said she has done nothing wrong and that the state’s attorney office has told her “don’t answer anything” from the ethics board or inspector general.

On July 15, Blanchard issued a report saying Pappas refused to cooperate with a separate probe he’s conducting “involving a high-ranking official” in her office.

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