Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios, who also serves as chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, has lost another round in court in his attempt to avoid turning over documents demanded by the county’s Inspector General as part of the IG’s investigation of allegations Berrios’ office improperly granted an assessor’s office employee a special property tax exemption.
A state appellate panel ruled Dec. 8 that the ordinances enacted by the Cook County Board granting the office of the Cook County Inspector General powers to subpoena documents from all county officials, including separately elected constitutional officers, such as the county assessor, during misconduct investigations.
The Illinois First District Appellate Court opinion was authored by Justice Neville, with justices Simon and Hyman concurring.
“We find that the (County) Board has the power to investigate allegations that county officials have abused their powers or committed fraud in their official capacities, as the corruption of county officials pertains to the county's government and affairs within the meaning of the Illinois Constitution,” the justices wrote.
“The assessor argues that the county lacks authority to oversee the assessor's operations, and the county cannot, by ordinance, eliminate the office of the assessor,” the justices added later in the opinion. “But investigating allegations of corruption in the assessor's office neither eliminates the office nor makes the investigator a supervisor of the assessor's operations.”
The decision comes as the latest steps in a legal tug-of-war that began in 2012 when Berrios resisted the attempts by Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard to obtain documents related to the assessments of two properties as part of an investigation to determine if the properties had received improper property tax exemptions. Published news reports indicated the investigation focused on exemptions given to property believed to be owned by an employee of Berrios’ office.
Blanchard followed with a subpoena for the documents in November 2013, citing power given the IG’s office in the county ordinances creating the IG’s office in 2007. Berrios objected to the subpoena, and Blanchard then sued to compel compliance.
Berrios argued the ordinances were unconstitutional, saying the County Board did not have the power to create an investigatory office which could hold such power of him, as a county officer elected apart from the County Board to an officer established under the Illinois Constitution.
Cook County Circuit Judge Franklin Valerrama ruled against Berrios, ordering him to comply with the subpoena.
On appeal, the justices also brushed aside Berrios’ arguments, saying the County Board acted within the bounds of its authority under the state constitution in empowering Blanchard to pursue allegations of fraud and other misconduct in county offices.
Appellate justices pointed to precedents in other cases, in which they said the courts have found home-rule units of government can, in the interest of rooting out alleged corruption, empower such investigatory offices.
Such precedents do “not deprive the county of authority to investigate allegations of corruption of county officials and the misuse of county funds,” the justices wrote. “We hold that the Board validly exercised its home rule powers when it adopted the ordinance that gave the (Office of the Inspector General) the power to investigate allegations that the assessor and other county officials acted corruptly.”
As a home rule unit of government, the county holds subpoena power, and can delegate that power to the Inspector General’s office, the justices said.
Further, they said, the county can do so without infringing on the power of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, as the Inspector General is empowered to “’notify the State’s Attorney or other appropriate law enforcement authority’ if the (Inspector General) finds evidence of crime.”
Berrios was represented in the action by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Blanchard and his office was represented by attorney Alexander Polikoff, of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI), of Chicago.