Fine over campaign contributions prompts assessor Berrios to sue ethics board

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Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios was missing in action from a public hearing on his office’s property tax assessment system. An independent review found the system to be regressive in February. |Tom Cruze/Sun-Times

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios is suing the Cook County Board of Ethics and the county’s Board of Commissioners for fining him earlier this month.

The $41,000 fine against Berrios was for accepting campaign contributions exceeding legal limits. Berrios, a two-term incumbent, takes aim at that ruling in his suit, filed Friday in Cook County Circuit Court.

Beyond requiring elected officials to return excess donations, a 2016 ordinance imposes a $750 limit on contributions in non-election years from people who’ve sought “official action” with the county or who are contractually-linked to the county as legal or financial counsel; the suit argues that the lack of a definition for “official action,” and its broad scope, makes the term “unconstitutionally vague.”

As a licensed attorney who has represented tax appeal cases in the county, John Norris, Berrios’ co-defendant, would be limited in his donations — and that “infringes” on his First Amendment rights, the suit says.

Limiting donations to Berrios’ campaign would put him at a disadvantage against his two challengers. Fritz Kaegi, a self-funding candidate, has contributed more than $800,000 to his own campaign committee.

To level the playing field before the March 20th Democratic primary, Berrios and Norris are seeking an injunction barring the board of ethics’ ordinance. The limit, their suit says, is unconstitutional because the Illinois General Assembly makes the rules that guide campaign donations and elections, and the ethics board’s limit goes against those rules.

“I’m filing this lawsuit today because personal politics should never trump the First Amendment, perhaps the most sacred of our U.S. Constitution,” Berrios said in a statement Friday. “I plan to make sure that every resident in Cook County is afforded the opportunity to exercise their First Amendment right when it comes to contributing to their candidate of choice, whoever that may be.”

Frank Shuftan, spokesman for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, said the county’s counsel still must review the lawsuit.

Kaegi’s campaign issued a statement calling the suit “the height of hypocrisy.”

“Under Berrios, corrupt politicians and owners of billion-dollar downtown skyscrapers win, and Berrios rakes in the cash,” the statement said.

No court date has been set.

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