A Cook County Assessor's Office employee faces charges she accepted more than $9,000 in kickbacks in exchange for helping property owners obtain refunds they were not entitled to receive.
Police charged Maria Gonzalez, 54, of Lyons with official misconduct, a class 3 felony that carries a sentence of two to five years in prison. Probation is also available.
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A Cook County judge set bail at $5,000 for Gonzalez. A tax information specialist with the assessor's office since 2001, Gonzalez was responsible for reviewing applications for Homeowner Exemption Certificates of Error.
Cook County property owners are entitled to a homeowner exemption credit -- which reduces property taxes -- if the property serves as the owner's primary residence for the tax year. Prosecutors said four times between April 16, 2010, and Feb. 12, 2011, Gonzalez met with property owners in their homes where she solicited and received payoffs for helping individuals receive refunds. Authorities said the amounts ranged from 20 to 50 percent of the recovered funds. In some cases, owners were not entitled to refunds because their property was a rental property, prosecutors said.
"There is simply no tolerance for theft of public money anywhere in Cook County government," said Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez in a prepared statement. "We will continue to aggressively investigate and prosecute these crimes to the fullest extent of the law."
Charged separately in an unrelated incident was Chicago grocery store owner Victor Benitez, who authorities say stole 48 homeowner exemption refund checks valued at more than $70,000 between Oct. 26, 2009, and Oct. 7, 2010. He has been charged with theft of government property, a class 1 felony that carries a sentence of four to 15 years in prison. Probation is also available.
Prosecutors say Benitez fraudulently applied for the exemptions from unsuspecting property owners then had the checks forwarded to him and to friends and family members. None of the owners of the 17 different properties -- whose names prosecutors say Benitez used -- applied for the refunds. Additionally the endorsements on the back of the checks were forged, prosecutors said.
A Cook County judge set bail at $25,000 for Benitez.
Both defendants next appear in court on April 18.