Berrios wins lawsuit over ethics fine for hiring relatives
Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios won't have to pay a $10,000 fine imposed on him by the county's board of ethics for hiring his son and sister.
That's because the ethics board has no power to impose such fines, or authority over independently elected countywide offices, a Cook County judge ruled.
Berrios was fined after ethics investigators determined he violated the county's anti-nepotism act in 2012. When he refused to pay the fine, the ethics board sued him last year in an effort to enforce the penalty.
However, the judge ultimately ruled in Berrios' favor.
"The board is not given the authority to effectuate any discipline, only to make appropriate recommendations," Judge Moshe Jacobius wrote in his decision.
The judge also said the ethics board's charter was muddied, and penalty policies conflicted with other county laws that prevented fines of more than $1,000.
Jacobius was sympathetic to the ethics board's cause.
"Notwithstanding the strong, legitimate public policy considerations prohibiting employment of relatives, the court cannot authorize the board's actions where the board does not have the authority and jurisdiction to act," the judge wrote.
Berrios said the judge's decision was not only a victory for him, but other countywide elected offices.
"I commend the excellent legal work on both sides of the issue," Berrios said. "Cases like this are sometimes necessary to provide guidance on the limits of power and the scope of authority granted to administrative agencies like the board of ethics."
But Ranjit Hakim, head of the ethics board, said Berrios won on a "technicality" of the ethics ordinance language.
"The board of ethics is working with its legal counsel to evaluate the available options," Hakim said. "Including a request for reconsideration to Judge Jacobius, an appeal to the First District Appellate Court or a legislative remedy."
In addition to thumbing his nose at the fine, Berrios also refused to follow the ethics board recommendation to fire his son, Joseph E. Berrios, and sister, Carmen Berrios Cruz, both of whom still work in the assessor's office. His daughter, Vanessa Berrios, also works in the office, but was employed there prior to Berrios taking office in 2010. She received a promotion and raise after her father took office, ethics investigators found.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the county board could strengthen the ethics board's powers.
"President Preckwinkle remains committed to a strong board of ethics and a strong ethics ordinance, and will review the order to determine whether there are any legislative amendments that could strengthen both," spokesman Frank Shuftan said.