Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Opinion: Pity the Poor, Hardworking People in the County Assessor’s Office

Assessor Berrios' name surfaces in federal bribery trial

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For the record, let me state that I do not know the detailed ins and outs of how the Cook County Assessor’s office works.

I don't spend my days down at the County Building, roaming the halls of the Assessor’s office, listening in on water cooler conversations or watching employees process property tax appeals.

But I’m sure honest, hardworking public servants are doing good work there for the people of Chicago and Cook County every single day.

And to them, I say: I’m sorry. It must be horrible to come into work sometimes.

Today might well be one of those days. Both the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune are reporting that secretly recorded tapes played Tuesday in the federal bribery trial of two Cook County Board of Review analysts offer another peek into an office where political insiders hold sway and paying full freight on property taxes is for fools and little people.

Berrios hasn’t been charged with any crime, and he wasn’t in court Tuesday as hours of wiretapped conversations defendants Tommy Hawkins and John Racasi had about their alleged bribe scheme were played for a federal jury.

But he was center stage nonetheless as both defendants repeatedly implicated him in the secretly taped conversations with an undercover FBI informant.

In one, recorded Sept. 17, 2008, Hawkins, 49, boasts that he was “with Berrios... having lettuce salads” — code, the feds say, that the defendants used for accepting cash bribes.

In another, recorded Sept. 11, 2008, Hawkins was recorded explaining that he planned to bypass “red tape” on an allegedly corrupt property tax appeal by going “straight to Berrios and get a signature.”

“You know, with the lettuce, say here you go, man — sign this. Put this through right away,” Hawkins was taped saying.

In 2008, when the conversations were recorded, Berrios wasn’t yet assessor, having won the office in 2010. And, as the papers report, he’s not currently on trial as part of the corruption probe run by the feds.

Yet, for those wishing to view the Cook County Assessor’s office and its sister agency, the Board of Review, as paragons of clean, transparent government, Tuesday’s revelations are another hurtful blow.

Berrios spent 22 years at the Board of Review before ascending to the Assessor’s office, where he was described as a “stalwart opponent of efforts to take clout out of the system and make it more transparent,” and a political operator at the center of a network of favor-seeking political insiders and campaign contributors.

Oh, and someone who doesn’t see anything wrong with padding the payroll with family members the minute he gets into office, either.

News of secretly recorded transcripts come a few weeks after another political insider, Ald. Ed Burke (14), was discovered working the system that includes the Assessor’s office to win more than $18.1 million in property-tax refunds since 2003 for wealthy and connected clients of his private law firm. Burke’s victories reportedly cost the city $3.6 million in lost revenue during that time.

I’m sure that right now, in Room 320 of 118 North Clark Street, there are many, many fine examples of outstanding public servants working at their desks and doing their jobs for the residents of Cook County. Residents who expect and deserve fair and transparent dealing from the people charged with collecting and processing property taxes in this town.

But I also expect there are a lot of sad faces and pained expressions, too.

Yet again.  

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