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Berrios hirings, firings might violate court order

Updated: January 6, 2011 9:18PM

Already on the hot seat for adding his son and daughter to the payroll, newly minted Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios made a series of politically motivated hires -- and firings -- that may violate a federal court order.

At issue are 27 people who were hired and fired in the assessor’s office since Berrios was sworn-in Dec. 5. Berrios said all serve at the pleasure of the assessor and are exempt from the court-ordered ban on political hiring and firing. But an attorney in the decades-old federal litigation that put a cap on patronage jobs in Cook County says none of them hold a job title on the official “exempt” list in court records.

“It appears there’s a violation,” said Brian Hays, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the ongoing federal court case. “There were people who were terminated and the assessor was on the record (with media outlets) saying that he could terminate people because they’re exempt.”

The first sign of a problem came last month when the Sun-Times and other news outlets reported that Berrios hired son Joseph “Joey” Berrios as a $48,000-a-year residential analyst and his sister Carmen Berrios as director of taxpayer services at a salary of $86,000 -- both of whom worked for Berrios when he was a member of the county’s tax appeals board.

“When we saw the stories in the Sun-Times and Tribune, we looked at the positions and noticed that neither one of those positions appeared on the court approved list,” Hays told the Sun-Times.

In addition, Berrios hired his long-time advisor and veteran election law attorney Tom Jaconetty as a $138,869-a-year deputy assessor and “chief operating officer of valuation and assessment” -- another title that doesn’t show up on the court list, Hays said.

Berrios calls the accusations ridiculous, noting that he sought the approval of the state’s attorney’s office and human resources before making the patronage hires.

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. All of this was done with the state’s attorney’s office and countywide human resources. I feel I’m on safe ground,” Berrios said.

The job titles may have changed, he said, but the positions in question can all be traced back to the 1990s court-approved list.

Hays has drafted a letter to the state’s attorney -- the assessor’s legal counsel -- questioning the hires.

“We’re assessing what our rights are and what our steps should be with regard to these apparent violations,” Hays said.

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