By Mark Wachtler
April 23, 2015. Chicago. (ONN) It’s hard to find examples where local corrupt elected officials are brought to justice. It’s much more common for Cook County Judges to rule that powerful politicians in Chicago are seemingly above the law. That was the case again when a Judge ruled that Cook County’s ethics and anti-corruption laws were unenforceable. The ruling clears the way for powerful Democratic Party leaders to continue putting their own family members on the government payroll.
Joe Berrios, Cook County Democratic Party Chairman and Cook County Assessor. Image courtesy of the Chicago Sun Times.
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Joe ‘The Boss’ Berrios
Corruption-plagued Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios must have felt like he didn’t have a friend in the world. He’s been paraded through the media for his accused corrupt practices day in and day out for five years. Berrios is also the Cook County Democratic Party Chairman, the same Party that slates and elects the County’s judges. Two days after taking office as Assessor in 2010, he violated the County’s anti-corruption laws by filling his staff with his family members. Together, the family has pocketed millions of taxpayer dollars through the years. And according to Judge Moshe Jacobius, nobody can stop them.
By 2012, Assessor and Chairman Joe Berrios had amassed 15 immediate family members working for the county or state, or having just retired and now collecting a large yearly pension for life. They included his sister whom he hired in the Assessor’s office for $108,000 per year and his son at $68,000 per year. Thanks to longtime abuses of the system, Cook County ethics laws ban nepotism and charge the Cook County Board of Ethics with enforcing it.
Anti-corruption laws unenforceable
After front page headlines exposed the nepotism practiced by the County Assessor, the Board of Ethics found him in violation of the law and fined him $10,000. In his ruling, Judge Jacobius didn’t argue that Joe Berrios didn’t break ethics laws. He simply ruled that the Board of Ethics had no authority to enforce them. Handing down his verdict, the Judge said, “Notwithstanding the strong, legitimate public policy considerations prohibiting employment of relatives, the court cannot authorize the Board’s actions.”
Berrios, along with other powerful Party leaders in Chicago and Cook County, have long argued that elected officials are exempt from anti-corruption laws and their Ethics Boards and Inspector Generals. After the ruling, the Chicago Sun Times quoted Joe Berrios saying, “Cases like this are sometimes necessary to provide guidance on the limits of power and the scope of authority granted to administrative agencies like the Board of Ethics.” When asked for a response to the Judge’s ruling, Ethics Board Executive Director Ranjit Hakim said, “We absolutely don’t agree.”
Reformers target Berrios
The man who simultaneously holds three powerful positions including Cook County Democratic Party Chairman, Cook County Assessor and 31st Ward Democratic Committeeman, may have won his court case. But he’s already lost the support of his own Party base. Last year, his daughter Toni was defeated for re-election as a State Representative. And earlier this month, one of Berrios’ closest allies and most powerful Chicago City Councilmen - Ray Suarez - was also defeated in Berrios’ own home 31st Ward.
For now, there’s little the voters can do. Joe Berrios was re-elected Cook County Assessor last year and will serve a four-year term. Like all other Cook County elected officials, he ran unopposed and captured 100% of the vote. That result is very misleading however. As detailed by the Cook County Clerk, Joe Barrios ran unopposed and still only received 67% of the votes cast.
Out of 695,800 votes cast during the 2014 Election, Berrios only received 466,801. That means 228,999 voters refused to vote for the only man on the ballot for Cook County Assessor. Unfortunately, in a one-Party city like Chicago, the Party controls the elections, and the courts.
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