Berrios lawsuit: Cook County ethics ordinance illegally limits his campaign cash, imposes fines

By Scott Holland | Jan 31, 2018

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios has sued the Cook County Board over campaign donation limits.

In a complaint filed Jan. 26 in Cook County Circuit Court, Berrios, who also serves as chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, and John K. Norris, a lawyer in DuPage County, sued both the County Board and the Cook County Board of Ethics, saying the county’s ethics ordinance conflicts with state law by limiting the amount of contributions Berrios can accept as well as the amount Norris can donate.

Berrios said county commissioners lacked home-rule authority to enact portions of the ordinance, which he also said is unconstitutionally vague and thus violates due process protections.

In addition to limiting contributions from people who do business with the county to $750 for candidates and $1,500 to campaign committees, the county ordinance allows the ethics board to impose a fine of up to $1,000 on any person found in violation. However, Berrios maintains the state’s General Assembly and Illinois State Board of Elections have exclusive authority over such matters.

State law allows donations to campaign committees of up to $5,600 per year from any individual, and public officials or candidates and their immediate family can make unlimited contributions. When a candidate or immediately family donates a certain amount to their own campaign — $250,000 for statewide office or $100,000 for all other offices — that person is considered self funding and they and all other candidates for the office are considered exempt from contribution limits.

On Sept. 30, the Elections Board told Berrios his opponent, Fritz Kaegi, filed a notification of self funding after spending more than $800,000 on his own campaign since May. Yet Berrios said the county still intends to enforce contribution limits on him because of his role as assessor.

Berrios said he got a letter in July from Ethics Board Executive Director Ranjit Hakim reporting excessive contributions both to his assessor campaign committee and in his capacity as director of the 31st Ward Democratic Organization. All the identified contributions involved law firms or attorneys, and Berrios said each contribution complied with state law “even without the benefit of the exemption.”

On Jan. 8, the Ethics Board said it found 41 contributions that exceeded the $750 limit from property tax appeal lawyers and, because they weren’t returned within 30 days, imposed a fine of $1,000 per violation, amounting to $11,000 on Berrios and the 31st Ward Organization and $30,000 on Berrios and his committee.

Home rule limitations apply, Berrios argued, because the county cannot supersede the state’s role in governing elections. Further, he said the county ordinance is flawed because it does not adequately define what constitutes “official action” with the county that limits a party’s donations for four years, offering examples such as applying for a picnic permit, a marriage license or an attorney’s application for a Daley Center identification card. He also said the ethics board has no power to enforce the ordinance.

It further is unclear if attorney conduct is regulated if they have no contact with the county until after making a campaign contribution. Norris said the ordinance violates public policy because it hinders lawyers’ ability to take on clients, which by extension impinges “upon the authority of the Supreme Court of Illinois to ensure that Illinois citizens have access to counsel of their choice.”

Berrios and Norris want the court to enjoin the Board of Ethics from enforcing the relevant sections of the ordinance and to declare them unconstitutional. They are represented in the matter by Forde Law Offices, LLP, and James P. Maily, PC., both of Chicago.

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Cook County Assessor Cook County Board of Commissioners Cook County Board of Ethics Cook County Democratic Party Illinois General Assembly

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