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Editorial: Berrios burns taxpayers’ money

Updated: April 21, 2013 6:33AM

First, taxpayers are told to dig into their pockets to pay for Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios to pad his payroll with relatives. Next, taxpayers are told to dig even deeper — maybe a lot deeper before it’s all over — to pay both the legal fees to pursue an ethics complaint against Berrios for nepotism and to defend him against that same charge.

Wouldn’t it be a lot cheaper if Berrios would stop treating nepotism as the spoils that any election winner deserves?

Berrios, who was elected assessor in 2010, has three relatives on the payroll: his sister Carmen Berrios, who makes more than $107,000 a year as deputy assessor for tax services and public outreach; his son Joseph E. “Joey” Berrios, who’s paid $72,444.32 a year as manager of an arm of the assessor’s office that examines homes as part of the valuation process; and his daughter Vanessa Berrios, who gets $73,904.48 a year as manager of industrial and commercial property valuations.

But when the Cook County Ethics Board told Berrios he had violated the county ethics ordinance by hiring relatives and recommended he fire them and pay $10,000 in fines, he ignored the board. He says the county’s ethics ordinance doesn’t apply to him or other independently elected officials. If he prevails in court, we’ll be left with no ethics oversight over those officials. There’s a nice gift for taxpayers.

Now, a judge has approved the ethics board’s request to hire David Hoffman, a former federal prosecutor and former City Hall inspector general, to prove the ethics ordinance applies to Berrios. Taxpayers also are paying for a special state’s attorney to represent Berrios.

Government generally pays the legal bills for officials who face suits arising out of the normal course of their jobs. That’s reasonable. When Gayle Franzen left his job as head of the Illinois Department of Corrections under former Gov. James R. Thompson, he had more than 700 lawsuits pending against him that took 10 years to clear up. A public officeholder can’t be expected to foot that kind of legal bill.

But taxpayers are really hurting in this county. Nepotism is a loser in the court of public opinion. Joe Berrios is burning your money.

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