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Assessor Berrios loses court fight to overturn Cook County's limits on campaign donations

Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Ray Long, Hal Dardick

Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios on Tuesday lost his court challenge to the county’s campaign contribution limits, marking a legal and political setback that could restrict how much property tax appeals lawyers who handle cases before his office pour into the assessor’s political funds.

Berrios, whose political committees were fined $41,000 for accepting donations exceeding caps set by the county’s ethics ordinance, is expected to appeal. The move likely would allow him to keep the political cash flowing as he heads into the last week of a Democratic primary race in which he seeks his third term.

“We respect the court and the judge, in particular, but we think the decision is wrong,” said Kevin Forde, who represented Berrios in court and before the county ethics board, which levied the fines. “We are hopeful and confident we’ll prevail on appeal.”

Berrios, who also is Cook County Democratic Party chairman, argued the county ordinance was unfair, vague and unconstitutional. The 2016 ordinance says donors may contribute no more than $750 in nonelection years, and $1,500 in election years, if they have sought “official action” from the county in the previous four years. The ethics probe covered January to March 2017.

Circuit Judge Sanjay Tailor ruled against all major points raised by the Berrios team, which sought a summary judgment on an expedited basis. Forde said he also would seek an expedited hearing in the Appellate Court, pending Berrios’ approval to take his challenge further.

Berrios’ lawyers contended the county rules violate the state constitution because only the Illinois legislature has authority to set campaign contribution limits. They said the rules also violated the U.S. Constitution because they limited the free-speech rights of tax appeal attorneys.

The county board, which approved the limits, maintained it has the power to set more restrictive limits on campaign cash to avoid quid pro quo politics. The judge agreed, saying the state legislature has exclusive authority over voter registration and election mechanics but not campaign finance.

In ruling against Berrios, Tailor pointed to the phrase, “All politics is local,” made famous by former U.S. House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, in explaining that home-rule powers are to be liberally interpreted when it comes to “the issue of real and perceived political corruption.”

Tailor maintained local governments “may enact their own laws governing campaign finance for local elections so long as they do not touch on voter registration or the mechanical procedures for holding elections.”

“Because the issue of the relationship between campaign finance and quid pro quo corruption and its appearance is essentially local in nature, the county has home-rule authority to limit campaign contributions for elected county offices,” Tailor ruled.

Berrios has continued to accept contributions that exceed county limits from the attorneys and law firms whose previous contributions triggered the fines by the ethics panel.

In a separate hearing Tuesday, the county ethics board rejected a Berrios motion to reconsider its $41,000 in fines.

The ethics board’s ruling said it appeared that Berrios made a “strategic decision” to challenge the campaign limits “to try to raise as much money from interested donors as possible now with a consequential election looming and worry about the consequences later.”

“That calculation, while potentially politically expedient, provides no legal grounds for reconsideration,” the ruling said.

Berrios has received more than $300,000 in large contributions so far this year, with most of the money coming from property tax appeals attorneys, after raising more than $450,000 from those attorneys in late 2016 and all of 2017. Much of that money came from attorneys whose contributions far exceeded the campaign contribution limits set by the county.

In his court case, Berrios also argued the county limits were unfair because he is not independently wealthy and needed to be able to raise funds to compete against challenger Frederick “Fritz” Kaegi, an Oak Park asset manager who has pumped $1.55 million of his own funds into his campaign to defeat the incumbent.

Under state law, when a candidate contributes more than $100,000 of his or her own money, donation limits that apply to all individuals are removed for the candidates in that race.

Berrios’ attorneys cited that law in saying that the property tax attorneys should have not face county-imposed restrictions in this race. In effect, they argued that the state law should cancel out the county limits. But the judge ruled that particular provision in Illinois law does not apply to the county ethics ordinance.

The judge acknowledged the words “official action” were undefined in the county ordinance, a point Berrios lawyers said made the law so unclear it could include an act as simple as getting a marriage license. But the judge noted the ethics board has interpreted official actions to include the appearances of attorneys and law firms who went before the assessor and the Board of Review, another venue for appeals.

Numerous property tax attorneys had contributed more than $750 to Berrios, prompting the ethics board to act. In July, ethics officials sent Berrios notices for receiving excessive contributions, both as chair of his own campaign fund and as chair of the political fund of the 31st Ward, his power base.

Berrios refused to return the contributions, and the ethics board meted out $1,000 fines for each of 41 violations, totaling $41,000.

When Berrios went to court, he was joined in the suit by one of those attorneys, John Norris.

Berrios’ practice of accepting campaign contributions from property tax lawyers was highlighted in “The Tax Divide,” a Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois series that concluded Berrios’ assessment practices favored the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Tax appeals, which have flourished under Berrios, only make the system less fair, the series concluded and a recent independent study commissioned by county officials confirmed.

In an unusual move, Tailor cited “The Blues Brothers” movie from 1980 as he worked through issues in the case and the complex structure of the Cook County property tax system.

He noted the Blues brothers, Jake and Elwood, paid a Catholic orphanage’s tax bill at the assessor’s office, even though the county treasurer collects those payments and not-for-profit institutions like the church don’t pay property taxes.

rlong@chicagotribune.com

hdardick@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @RayLong

Twitter @ReporterHal



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