Just how big is Illinois’ latest political scandal going to get?
People have been asking that question over and over in the aftermath of one prominent politico after another being swept up in the federales’ investigative dragnet.
Now they have reason to ask it once again after another high-profile Chicago politician — Joseph Berrios — has been targeted with subpoenas seeking potentially sensitive information.
Downstaters may not be familiar with the name. But those who follow Chicago’s unique style of “Ubi est mea?” (“Where’s mine?”) politics will immediately recognize the name of Cook County’s former assessor and Democratic Party chairman.
Indeed, assessor Berrios was the straw who stirred the drink in the suspiciously lucrative property-tax appeal business that helped enrich many a city legal big-shot, including Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, who is under indictment, and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, whose activities are the subject of FBI inquiries.
The Chicago Sun-Times roiled Democratic Party politics in the city again last week when it reported about federal subpoenas seeking documents from Berrios’ 31st Ward Democratic Organization, his Friends of Berrios Committee and the Mexican American Political Action Committee.
The subpoenas made it clear that the feds are interested in knowing what favors Berrios may have performed in exchange for an array of possible “benefits.”
Official actions under review include “assessor recommendations, certificates of correction, certificates of error, property evaluations and re-reviews.”
The benefits include “airplane tickets, alcohol, barbecue grills, boat access, books, cigars or cigar merchandise, concerts, contributions related to the retirement party for (Berrios), furniture, gifts, golf outings, the provision of meals, private plane access and sporting-event tickets.”
Over his long career, Berrios became a powerful — and later notorious — Cook County politician, first as a member of the county’s board of review and later as assessor.
His role as assessor was particularly noteworthy for a couple reasons. He brazenly flouted anti-nepotism rules by hiring family members and then indignantly dismissing complaints after his actions became public.
More important, however, was his office’s handling of the property reassessment process.
Here’s how it worked. Berrios’ office, like that of his predecessors, would place excessive property-tax values on some high-profile properties. The property owners would hire prominent law firms, like Madigan’s and Burke’s, to file appeals seeking a reduction in the assessments that would lead to a reduction in property taxes.
The law firms would win reductions, taking as their fees a percentage of the savings to the property owners. At the same time, the connected law firms would shower Berrios’ with campaign contributions.
The Chicago Tribune along with ProPublica did an exhaustive series of investigative stories in 2017-18 that revealed the flawed process.
In the March 2018 primary election, Cook County Democratic voters, fed up with Berrios, overwhelmingly rejected his bid for re-nomination for another term. Instead, they chose self-proclaimed reformer and current assessor Fritz Kaegi.
In addition to losing his assessor’s post, Berrios stepped down as party chairman and was replaced as leader by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. But he’s still a high-profile figure who has longstanding ties to other members of the city’s and county’s political elite.
In addition to high-profile white politicians coming under scrutiny, authorities are taking a hard look at Hispanics who have risen to the top of Chicago and Cook County politics.
That may or may not be related to the assistance of former Chicago Alderman Danny Solis, who wore a wire for several years and recorded hundreds of conversations with politicians and political insiders.
Two other prominent Hispanics, Luis Arroyo and Martin Sandoval, have been tied to the pending criminal investigations. Arroyo has been charged with bribery while Sandoval’s offices and home were subject to federal searches.
Both Arroyo and Sandoval have since resigned their legislative seats.
State Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, has also been charged in connection with a lucrative no-show Teamsters jobs, the result of the cooperation of a former Teamsters leader who ran afoul of the feds and decided to cooperate to spare himself a long stint in prison.
Another state senator, assistant Democratic majority leader Terry Link of Waukegan, has also been implicated in potential wrongdoing — federal tax evasion — and identified as an undercover FBI operative in the Arroyo case.
In addition to the big-name players, a small army of municipal officials and political hangers-on have been targeted in connection with a wide array of suspected wrongdoing in Chicago, Cook County and the General Assembly in Springfield.
Illinois has had its share of big-time political scandals. But it’s hard to remember a time when federal investigators were overseeing so many separate investigations with so many different players in the bull’s-eye.
That’s one reason why it was ironic that last week, Chicago played host to the annual Council on Governmental Ethics Laws conference that drew hundreds of people from the United States and Canada.