Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios talks during a meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Monday June 4, 2012. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Updated: October 12, 2012 6:09AM
Remember when Cook County government was known for honesty and efficiency?
Neither do we.
So it’s unfortunate that County Assessor Joseph Berrios is carrying the banner for nepotism at a time when real efforts are under way to transform county government.
Do voters need to become even more cynical?
After he was elected assessor in 2010, Berrios promptly hired his son, Joseph “Joey” Berrios, and his sister, Carmen Berrios. His daughter, Vanessa Berrios, already was on the payroll, but when Dad was sworn in she got a promotion and a $10,000-a-year pay raise.
At the assessor’s office, as the saying goes, everything’s relative.
The Cook County Board of Ethics took a dim view of Berrios’ nepotism binge. And no wonder, seeing as there is a county ordinance saying officials can’t hire their relatives. So in June, the board ruled Berrios had violated the ordinance. The board said he should fire his relatives and pay a $10,000 fine.
Berrios didn’t comply. Instead a specially appointed state’s attorney said the ethics board can’t tell him what to do because he is an independently elected officeholder. The special state’s attorney has cost taxpayers $4,773 so far, and meanwhile Berrios’ relatives remain on the payroll.
The special state’s attorney, Steven Puiszis, said he provided the ethics board with three state’s attorney’s opinions dating to 1994 that back Berrios’ position. But he would not provide copies of those documents. And, when he talked to a Sun-Times reporter, he oddly made a point of saying what a terrific job Berrios and his relatives are doing.
What kind of objective and neutral special state’s attorney is that?
In the end, this issue may go to a county judge — you know, one of those people who runs for office or retention with the backing of the Cook County Democratic Party, which Berrios happens to head. Or who are appointed to a vacancy by the elected judges. In the past, Berrios has been accused of bragging that he holds sway over many judges.
On Monday, Berrios said he just doesn’t see a problem. His son and sister worked for him in his previous job as a commissioner on the Cook County Board of Review, he said. All he did was bring them along when he won the assessor’s job.
“All of a sudden it becomes an issue when I become assessor, when it didn’t matter before,” he said.
It does matter. Too bad Berrios is so busy keeping relatives on the payroll that he can’t see that.