| by Nathaniel Hamilton

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios is fighting a lot of battles these days.

He’s fighting to keep property assessment procedures and systems secret after the Chicago Tribune uncovered the extreme lack of transparency over how property assessments were done in Cook County.

He’s fighting multiple primary challengers trying to kick him out of office after the unfair and regressive effects from his office’s property assessments revealed what many low-income and minority Cook County residents already knew.

And he’s fighting to keep his political power after Democratic candidates for governor, Cook County Clerk David Orr and multiple Cook County commissioners have called for him to step down.

But it’s Berrios’ fight for more campaign cash that earned a rebuke from the State’s Attorney’s Office.

Last week, Berrios announced that he was suing the Cook County Board of Ethics to try to change the limits on campaign donations he’s allowed to accept from people and businesses doing business with the county—primarily, in Berrios’ case, property tax attorneys.

For years, Berrios has accepted hundreds of thousands in campaign donations from property tax attorneys and law firms that specialize in property tax appeals. Donations like these can represent a significant conflict of interest for Berrios, because his office deals directly with property tax attorneys for property tax appeals. Last month, however, the Cook County Board of Ethics fined Berrios $41,000 for illegally accepting campaign donations from property tax attorneys and firms that exceeded county campaign finance limits.

Berrios’ lawsuit—which he filed in his official capacity as Cook County assessor—makes multiple flimsy arguments for why he should be allowed to take more money from property tax attorneys. But because Berrios filed it as Cook County assessor, taxpayers were stuck with the bill—that is, unless the State’s Attorney’s Office has a say in it.

On Thursday, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’ office filed a motion to rescind the appointment of Berrios’ special state’s attorney, force Berrios to file the lawsuit as an individual and—most importantly for Cook County taxpayers—pay for the lawsuit himself.

The State’s Attorney’s Office and government law departments are required to represent government offices and officials in any litigation involving government offices or officials in their government capacity. But, if a government official is involved in a lawsuit that has nothing to do with their official government work and capacity, then they need to foot the bill themselves. If John Smith sues Assessor Joe Berrios, then the State’s Attorney’s Office represents Berrios and taxpayers pay for it. If John Smith sues citizen Joe Berrios, then Berrios gets his own lawyer and pays for it himself.

The State’s Attorney’s Office motion makes the common sense and unambiguous argument that there’s clearly no benefit to Cook County taxpayers whether Joe Berrios can accept more money from property tax attorneys or not.

This isn’t the first time Berrios has tried to use tax dollars and his position as assessor to benefit himself politically. In 2013, he waged a three-year legal battle to try to exempt his office from oversight by the Cook County inspector general. The Illinois Supreme Court eventually made it clear that the Cook County inspector general does have jurisdiction to oversee and investigate the Cook County Assessor’s Office—but not before tens of thousands of tax dollars were likely spent for Berrios to fight a losing legal battle.

Whether Berrios can file his lawsuit as Cook County assessor or whether he has to do it as an individual will be decided during the next scheduled hearing on May 29.

The State’s Attorney’s Office is trying to put a stop to Berrios’ latest attempt to get a political leg up at Cook County’s expense. Hopefully, the state’s attorney’s arguments—and taxpayers—prevail.

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