Former Cook County Democratic boss Joe Berrios has agreed to pay $100,000 to end two ethics cases against him that he had been fighting since he was the county’s assessor, according to documents obtained by WBEZ.
But the six-figure settlement represents a discount for Berrios from the $168,000 in fines that the county’s Board of Ethics levelled against him three years ago for violations of rules intended to encourage honest government in the notoriously corrupt county.
Ethics Board Chairman Thomas Szromba said the county received the settlement payment on Tuesday. The deal avoids additional expenses that could have been incurred in trying to pry the full judgment from Berrios, Szromba said.
“I do think it’s a good deal for the ethics board and for the people of Cook County,” Szromba said. “It isn’t the full fine amount, but it’s a significant portion of it. For that reason, the board felt it was an appropriate settlement, given the costs of collecting all of the money from him.”
Berrios lost his bid for a third term as the county’s assessor nearly three years ago, falling to Fritz Kaegi’s reform-themed campaign in the 2018 Democratic primary. During his long career in Chicago politics, Berrios was an outspoken proponent of old-school government, defending the widespread hiring of his family members despite restrictions against nepotism.
And in his final year in office, Berrios ran afoul of county ethics officials again. In two cases brought in 2018, the Board of Ethics fined Berrios, his campaign fundraising committee for the assessor’s races and his Democratic organization in the 31st Ward, on Chicago’s Northwest Side.
The board accused Berrios and the two political funds he controlled of repeatedly accepting campaign contributions in excess of the amounts that he was permitted to get from lawyers who had filed property-tax appeals cases at his office.
But Berrios denied wrongdoing and sued the Board of Ethics in Cook County Circuit Court, “attacking the constitutionality and validity” of the county’s ethics ordinance, records show.
After Berrios lost in court last year, ethics officials said his lawyer approached them to work out the settlement. Berrios signed the agreement on Feb. 9, and a lawyer from the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, which represented the ethics officials in the case, approved it on Feb. 10, according to records obtained this week by WBEZ.
Reached on his phone this week, Berrios said he would “absolutely not” comment on the settlement agreement.
“My attorneys are looking into all that,” he said.
When a reporter noted that Berrios had signed the six-page settlement agreement eight days earlier, he replied, “Still don’t know what’s going on with that.”
Berrios’ lawyer, Kevin Forde, said the settlement amount was “reasonable,” because many of the fines stemmed from contributions to his ward organization’s campaign committee, which supported other candidates in addition to Berrios and should not have been subject to the county’s oversight.
“Mr. Berrios wanted to put this behind him, recognizing that some elements of it were unfair,” Forde said. “It could have gone on and on.”
The amount that Berrios agreed to pay to end the litigation is far less than what the county spent representing him in his legal battle with the Ethics Board, court records show.
The county’s taxpayers had to foot the bill, not only to represent the Ethics Board against Berrios, but for Berrios’ outside lawyers during part of the wrangling over the fundraising violations. That’s because Berrios was represented by a specially-appointed attorney.
In affirming the ethics board’s power to sanction Berrios nearly a year ago, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Anna Helen Demacopoulos ruefully tallied the cost of the litigation to “the people of Cook County.”
“Berrios was only able to have the Special State’s Attorney appointed to represent him because he insisted on suing, not as an individual, but in his official capacity as Assessor,” Demacopoulos wrote in February 2020. “It ultimately cost the county $128,187.92 for Berrios’ attempt to bypass [the Ethics Board].”
Still, current and former county ethics officials involved in the case hailed the outcome this week.
“Obviously in Cook County, it’s important to have an active Ethics Board for exactly for cases like the Berrios case and other matters as well,” said Szromba, the board chairman. “By turning the page on this one, we can move onto other things, because, unfortunately, there are other things to do.”
Peggy Daley, who was the board’s chairwoman when the Berrios case began, said he had engaged in “substantial misconduct” while in county office but said the settlement represented “a really big win” for Berrios’ critics.
“It’s going to be a very painful check to write,” Daley said. “When you settle a lawsuit, you take a discount.”
But Daley said she felt spending taxpayer dollars for Berrios’ legal fees was “unconscionable.”
“It’s enraging to me, the amount of money that was spent by Berrios — county funds — in this effort to appeal it,” she said.
Another former Ethics Board member, Juliet Sorensen, said officials had “sent a message” to potential rule-breakers by defeating Berrios in court repeatedly.
She said the contributions to Berrios from property-tax lawyers could have been sincere expressions of approval for his performance in office, or it may have been attempts “to curry favor” with a public official who effectively saved them and their clients a lot of money.
“But the point of the ethics ordinance and the campaign finance regulations in particular is to both to avoid actual corruption and the appearance of corruption,” Sorensen said. “There’s no question that, when an elected official is receiving thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from individuals who have an interest in pending matters before the official, it doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.