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County drops probe of donations to Assessor Berrios from tax attorneys

Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios

Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios

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Updated: January 17, 2012 8:28AM

The Cook County Board of Ethics is dropping an investigation into the thousands of dollars Assessor Joe Berrios accepted from attorneys whose bread and butter is representing clients seeking lower property tax bills — from county tax officials such as Berrios.

In a written “advisory opinion” obtained by the Sun-Times, the watchdog group said they had no other choice but to discontinue the probe after county commissioners changed local campaign finance law over the summer, amid legal questions about contribution caps for tax attorneys.

Berrios has argued he’s been on the right side of the law all along and calls the contribution caps for tax attorneys not only illegal but an insult.

“I think what’s ridiculous about this whole thing is no one is going to be influenced by someone who gives you a check to run for office,” Berrios told the Sun-Times. “I do feel vindicated,” he said.

He called the whole issue a campaign ploy prompted by Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool — who ran as an independent in the assessor’s race. In the run-up to the November general election, Claypool successfully lead an effort on the county board to reshape an ethics ordinance that calls on the assessor, among other elected leaders, to return donations exceeding $1,500 in an election cycle — or $750 for the primary and $750 for the general election — from attorneys appealing real estate tax assessments in the county.

Claypool argued at the time this was a way to head off at least the appearance of pay-to-play politics in county government. He couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.

But the measure triggered ethics board investigations, and prompted the board to send letters to 15 attorneys who contributed to Berrios’ campaign, telling them they exceeded the $750 contribution limit for the general election — by as much as $2,000 in some cases, according to Berrios’ legal counsel.

At one point the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office issued a legal opinion, saying a court might find the local caps unconstitutional because state law already sets campaign contribution limits in local elections. Likewise, setting contribution caps for attorneys who appeal property tax cases in Cook County infringes on the Illinois Supreme Court’s powers to set rules governing attorney conduct, the opinion stated.

In June, Cook County commissioners ditched the local cap, deferring to the state’s attorney’s opinion. And this week, the ethics board sent notices to attorneys and to Berrios, stating in part: “...the Board of Ethics concludes that it shall not pursue any further action against those attorneys or tax representatives or against those elected officials, who may have received letters of notice of potential violation or notices of investigation from the Board of Ethics for alleged over-contributions.”

MaryNic Foster, executive director of that board — under the purview of County Board President Toni Preckwinkle — steered clear of whether this was a disappointing turn of events for his board.

“I think if you go back to the September, I think we were very excited about moving forward with this particular provision. We think that a strict and enforceable code of conduct for county officials and those who do business with the county is the best way to ensure fair honest and open government,” Foster said.

But Berrios’ attorney, Burt Odelson, reads the five-page opinion this way: “They said we were right. They recognize what the law is and they’re not going to waste any more taxpayer money investigating, or ordering people to give money back when that’s not the law.”

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