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Our View: Berrios still says he’s above the law

Updated: November 25, 2012 11:45AM



Life is much simpler for an ethically challenged public official if he ignores ethics rules. A shining example of that is Joe Berrios, the Cook County assessor and county Democratic Party chairman.

Berrios is squabbling with the county inspector general and ethics board over various ethical imprecisions. In Just-for-me Joe’s view, he apparently answers to no one.

Soon after being elected assessor in 2010, Berrios hired his sister ($107,840 a year) and his son ($72,450) in the assessor’s office because he ‘‘wanted people he could trust.’’ He also promoted his daughter, a longtime employee of the office, and gave her a $14,000 raise.

Because county ethics rules prohibit an officeholder from employing relatives, the ethics board ordered Berrios to dismiss his family members and fined him $10,000. He refused on both counts on grounds that the ethics rules only apply to the county board and its staff. Really?

The inspector general has subpoenaed Berrios to turn over documents related to an assessor’s employee, Sauk Village Mayor Lewis Towers, getting two homeowner’s exemptions on his property tax bill. You’re allowed only one. Berrios to the IG: You can also jump in the lake.

Berrios’ lawyer says Towers paid back the money saved from the illegal exemption and was suspended and demoted. But the IG says there remain unanswered questions, including how it happened and who knew about it.

Berrios cites an 18-year-old opinion by the state’s attorney’s office in contending that the ethics ordinance doesn’t apply to him. That’s ridiculous. As we’ve pointed out before, the ordinance was amended last year, partly to address that large loophole. Other county officials say it applies to all of them. Common sense tells you it should.

None of this means Berrios is more myopic than other Cook County politicians, but he seems the mostly publicly defiant. When national politicians sneer at “Chicago politics” for its mendacity, they’re not talking only about imprisoned governors and sleazy city officials. They’re also talking about the type of arrogance symbolized by Berrios.



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