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County drops probe of assessor

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios appears to be in the clear after the Cook County Board of Ethics dropped its investigation over the thousands of dollars Berrios received from attorneys who represent clients in property assessment disputes.

The BOE said it had no choice but to drop the probe because county commissioners changed local finance law during the summer, primarily regarding contribution caps for tax attorneys.

The Chicago Sun Times reports on the situation here.

Berrios says he feels “vindicated” and said he knew he’d done nothing wrong, calling contribution caps for tax attorneys illegal. He said it’s “ridiculous” that someone would be influenced by someone who contributes money to a campaign for office.

Really? If true, Berrios would be the first politician ever to not be influenced by those who contribute to their campaign.

Berrios blamed the situation on Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool, who ran against Berrios in the assessor’s race. Leading up to November’s election, Claypool was successful in convincing the county board to reshape an ethics ordinance to call on the assessor and other elected leaders to return donations from attorneys who are appealing property tax assessments that exceed $1,500 in an election cycle, or $750 for the primary and $750 for the general election.

Claypool argued that the ordinance would eliminate the appearance of impropriety within the government.

Instead, it sparked investigations by the ethics board that led to the mailing of letters to 15 attorneys who contributed to Berrios’ campaign letting them know they exceeded the limit in the general election, some by as much as $2,000.

But Claypool’s ordinance quickly fell out of favor. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office offered an opinion, stating that a court could find the local caps unconstitutional as state law already sets campaign contribution limits on local elections. Setting contribution caps on attorneys in the county could also infringe on the state Supreme Court’s ability to set rules regarding attorney conduct.

The local cap was finally dropped over the summer when the county agreed with the state attorney’s opinion. That prompted the ethics board to drop its investigation of Berrios and won’t pursue any action against any attorneys who contributed to his campaign.

What do you think? Should there be further protection against tax attorneys contributing to the campaign of a tax assessor? Or does that single out a group unfairly?

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