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Tax attorney’s lawyer shrugs off charge that Assessor Joe Berrios contribution is illegal

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Chicago tax attorney Herbert B. Rosenberg’s $1,000 donation to the winning campaign of Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios last year violated local campaign contribution laws.

That’s according to a letter he received from the Cook County’s Ethics Board, which is investigating charges that a series of attorneys gave illegal contributions to the Berrios campaign, Rosenberg’s attorney confirmed Wednesday.

Rosenberg has no intention of abiding by a county ordinance his attorney — and others — are calling “unconstitutional.”

Rosenberg’s attorney George Collins, like others, is pointing to a Cook County State’s Attorney’s opinion suggesting the local law — which sets special campaign contribution limits on attorneys doing business with the county — infringes on an attorney’s freedom of speech and may not stand up in court.

“He received a letter saying he violated an illegal law,” Collins said of his client, Rosenberg. Collins sent a letter to Cook County’s ethics board letting them know the same.

State campaign disclosure records show Rosenberg donated $1,000 Oct. 13, weeks before Berrios would win the assessor’s race.

Attorneys appealing real estate tax cases in the county can give candidates running for the very positions that can decide the outcome of a tax fight — that is, the assessor or a commissioner on the board of review — $750 in the first and second halves of an election year for a maximum $1,500.

In the letter from the county, Rosenberg was told he gave $250 more than allowed.

“They’re telling my client he should get the refund and, well, I’m in charge of getting the refund and I’m damned busy so I’m not going to go after it,” Collins said. “If Berrios sends the refund, we’ll put it right in the waste basket.”

While the Cook County Deputy State’s Attorney Patrick Driscoll wrote in a recent opinion that the “court would likely find [the contribution limits] unconstitutional” the ordinance remains in effect.

The state’s attorney’s opinion says state law has the final word on campaign contributions in local elections. Illinois law bars individuals from donating more than $5,000 to a candidate during an election cycle while businesses, unions and other associations can give candidates $10,000. Political Action Committees have a contribution cap of $50,000.

Asked whether this puts Rosenberg, an attorney, in the position of violating the law, Collins said: “There are some southern states that didn’t get around to repealing all the segregation laws, even though they’ve been found unconstitutional,” Collins said.

Berrios has been equally defiant. His attorney sent a “cease and desist” letter to the ethics board over the investigation. And he’s threatening a lawsuit.

If Berrios loses the battle, then he’ll be ordered to refund money to Rosenberg and any other attorneys who exceeded the contribution limits. If he doesn’t, Berrios could face a fine up to $5,000.

While a legal battle is simmering, Cook County Commissioner Tim Schneider, a Northwest suburban Republican, says the campaign contribution cap he successfully pushed back in 2009 is “morally, it’s the right thing to do.”

There are similar laws that apply to vendors doing business with the county and go a long way toward “avoiding even the appearance of a pay-to-play system,” he said.

“There’s a sense people can buy access and influence in government, and we should distance ourselves from that.”

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