After a long legal battle, the Illinois Supreme Court has finally ended an attempt by a Chicago politician to exempt himself and his office from oversight.
Earlier this month, Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios lost his three-year lawsuit claiming that his office was not subject to oversight by the Cook County Inspector General (IG). The result of this is a big win for government accountability, and all it cost Chicagoans was almost four years and thousands and thousands of tax dollars, as well as the time and effort of numerous county employees fighting for—and against—this frivolous position.
So how did taxpayers get the short end of this stick and wind up paying for both sides of Berrios’ three-year lawsuit designed to fight accountability and oversight?
In 2012, the Cook County Inspector General opened an investigation into the Cook County Assessor’s Office over whether an Assessor’s Office employee had been granted illegal property tax breaks. The IG requested that the Assessor’s Office provide him with the paperwork relating to the tax breaks.
The IG responded by issuing a subpoena for the documents.
Berrios ignored it.
Eventually, the IG was forced to file a lawsuit to gain access to the records.
The lawsuit was filed in June of 2013, with the State’s Attorney representing both sides (Berrios directly and the Cook County IG through the appointment of a special State’s Attorney). Berrios tried to avoid oversight by arguing that Cook County did not have the authority to create an IG with oversight over the Cook County Assessor’s Office, despite the fact that nowhere in Cook County law or Cook County policy surrounding the Assessor’s Office or the IG’s office does such a policy exist.
A Cook County judge ruled against Berrios, finding that the IG did have authority over Berrios and the Office of the Assessor. But Berrios kept the losing legal battle going by filing an appeal.
Meanwhile, several Cook County officials bucked good government and oversight themselves and latched onto Berrios’ flimsy legal challenge, asserting that they too were free from oversight. These officials include Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough; Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas; and members of the Cook County Board of Review, Larry Rogers Jr. and Dan Patlak.
On December 8, 2015, the three-judge panel for the Illinois Appellate Court unanimously affirmed the trial court in a four-page opinion, ordering Berrios to produce the documents requested by the IG. Berrios continued to shirk oversight and appealed his claim to the Illinois Supreme Court.
Nearly a year after the Appellate Court’s decision, the seven justices of the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Berrios. Their opinion thoroughly dismantled every legal argument put forth by Berrios. The ruling by the Supreme Court means the officials who jumped on Berrios’ bandwagon are now on notice that they cannot evade oversight either.
Despite the incredibly weak legal arguments made by the Assessor’s Office, one of the arguments Berrios made appears to unwittingly highlight what was really at stake in all of these legal proceedings. Berrios argued that giving the Cook County IG jurisdiction over his office was improper because Cook County does not have the legal authority to fundamentally change the structure/operations of the Assessor’s Office.
In other words, the Inspector General is not allowed to impose penalties, or pass judgment on those he or she oversees. The IG can only see what county offices or employees are doing and give recommendations on the best ethical practices. Using that argument, Berrios argued that simply allowing the Cook County IG to see what his office was doing would fundamentally change how the office operates.
Meaning, if someone was making sure the Assessor’s Office was following the rules, the Assessor’s Office would have to start following the rules.
While Chicagoans should rightfully be frustrated by this political circus, they should find some satisfaction in the final outcome. Cook County officials and offices too often bend and break ethics laws while flying under the public radar. Berrios and his Assessor’s Office alone have been subject to claims of nepotism, conflicts of interest, and lax ethics.
It’s heartening to see the proper legal outcome in this case. Chicagoans being engaged with how their government offices are acting—and letting elected officials know they’re watching—is the most effective way to have an ethical and transparent government.
Assessor Berrios’ office reached out to Project Six with their statement in reaction to the Supreme Court ruling:
“The Cook County Assessor’s office will comply with the decision of the Illinois Supreme Court in Blanchard vs. Berrios.
“Assessor Berrios said, ‘My office is committed to transparency and proper employee conduct. That’s why we acted quickly on this matter nearly three years ago.'”
The Assessor’s office stressed that their lawsuit centered around legal principle of official jurisdictions. However, there are still many questions that need to be answered regarding how oversight is allowed to be carried out in offices such as the assessors in Chicago and Cook County.