IL Supreme Court: Berrios can't block county Inspector General's investigation at Assessor's office

By Jonathan Bilyk | Dec 1, 2016

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to include a statement from the Office of Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios responding to the decision.

The state’s highest court has declared Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios must comply with subpoenas issued by the county’s Inspector General, saying a Cook County ordinance empowering the Inspector General to “detect, deter and prevent corruption, fraud, waste, mismanagement, unlawful political discrimination or misconduct in the operation of County government” can be constitutionally applied to investigations of potential misconduct in the offices of elected county officials, like Berrios.

On Dec. 1, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed with a Cook County judge and a state appellate panel, who similarly had found Berrios could not refuse to turn over documents demanded by the IG as part of an investigation of allegations Berrios’ office improperly granted an assessor’s office employee a special property tax exemption.

Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios  

“In sum, the IG Ordinance adopted by the Cook County Board of Commissioners, which imposed a duty on all county officials including elected officers to cooperate with investigations conducted by the Inspector General and to comply with subpoenas issued by the Inspector General as part of such investigations, is constitutional as applied to the Assessor,” the state high court justices wrote. “Accordingly, the circuit and appellate courts correctly held that the Assessor is bound by those duties and must comply with the subpoena issued by the Inspector General.”

The opinion was authored by Justice Charles E. Freeman. Chief Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier and justices Robert Thomas, Thomas L. Kilbride, Rita B. Garman, Anne M. Burke and Mary Jane Theis all concurred in the unanimous decision.

The legal tussle over the question had begun in 2012, when Berrios refused to comply with 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.

Blacnhard followed with subpoenas for documents in November 2013, citing power given the IG’s office in the county ordinance creating the IG’s office in 2007. Berrios refused to comply with the subpoena, telling Blanchard’s office the ordinance did not legally apply to his office, as his office is not under the direct control of the Cook County Board. He directed Blanchard to submit requests for the documents under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Blanchard then filed suit to compel cooperation.

After Cook County Judge Franklin Valerrama ruled against Berrios, the assessor then appealed, arguing, among other positions, the ordinance represented an unconstitutional attempt by the County Board to supervise operations at the office of an elected county official.

A panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court, however, said Berrios’ arguments did not hold up, and the County Board had enacted within its constitutional home rule authority in enacting the ordinance, which carried the stated goal of rooting out corruption, fraud and official misconduct – all legitimate county and public interests which did not deprive Berrios of his legal authority to operate his office.

Berrios again appealed. But the Illinois Supreme Court sided completely with the lower courts, rejecting all of Berrios’ attempts to argue the IG ordinance should not apply to him and his office.

The justices said the ordinance does not unconstitutionally impose additional duties on Berrios’ office, nor does it give the County Board oversight of Berrios’ operations.

“There is nothing in the language of the ordinance that relates to the assessment of property for tax purposes,” the justices wrote.  “None of its provisions attempt to alter or interfere with the performance of the Assessor’s duties or the day-to-day functions of the employees of that office.”

Further, the court said the creation and empowerment of the Inspector General’s office falls under the County Board’s home rule police powers to investigate the potential misuse of taxpayer money, which the County Board allocates annually to the various county departments and offices, including Berrios’.

And the justices shot down Berrios’ contention his office should be constitutionally considered separate from “Cook County” and not under the County Board’s home rule authority.

“The Assessor’s office must be a part of some category of government,” the justices wrote. “The Assessor does not argue that his office is part of the State or any of its agencies, such as the Department of Revenue, and it is obvious that his office is not part of a school district. Thus, the Assessor’s office is a part of Cook County, the unit of local government from which he is elected and for which he and the employees of that office perform their functions and duties.”

Responding to the Supreme Court decision, a spokesman for Berrios released this statement:

"The Cook County Assessor’s Office will comply with the decision of the Illinois Supreme Court.

It is important to note this case was solely about a legal principal, not the Assessor’s Office willingness to turn over documents. Paragraph 6 of the Court’s decision correctly states that in 2015 Assessor Joseph Berrios offered to give the requested documents to the Inspector General through the Freedom of Information Act. The IG declined.

In the original matter, the two Homeowner Exemptions existed only under previous assessors. Assessor Berrios ordered a thorough internal investigation and those exemptions were found to have been within the law. 

A year earlier, Assessor Berrios had already sought creation of an aggressive Erroneous Exemptions Unit. In just a few years, the Unit has now recovered $19.3 million   and has billed $36 million. The Cook County Budget Director, on behalf of the County Board President, is the latest of many officials to laud the Unit’s work." 

The release included a statement from Berrios, who said, "My office is committed to transparency and proper employee conduct. That’s why we acted quickly on this matter nearly three years ago.”

Berrios was represented in the action by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Blanchard and his office had been represented in the matter by attorney Alexander Polikoff, of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI), of Chicago.

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Business and Professional People for the Public Interest Cook County Assessor Cook County Board of Commissioners Illinois First District Appellate Court Illinois Supreme Court

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