Spotless ethics needed at the Board of Review

With so much power, the commissioners should be absolutely aboveboard.

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Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Tammy Wendt

Sun-Times file

Once again, the Cook County Board of Review is in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

This time, it is Tammy Wendt, one of the board’s three commissioners, who allegedly hired her first cousin to be her chief of staff at an amount quickly bumped up to $150,000 a year, $15,000 over what a source close to the board said is the usual starting salary. The County Board’s ethics ordinance bars hiring first cousins. But — and we guess this shouldn’t be a surprise — the Board of Review had its own ethics ordinance that was, shall we say, vague on the point, banning only familial relationships, which is subject to interpretation. Wendt has not denied her chief of staff is her first cousin.

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It’s no secret the Board of Review’s three commissioners, Wendt, Michael Cabonargi and Larry Rogers Jr., have been squabbling. The upcoming 2022 election, in which all three must run for re-election with redrawn district maps, may have intensified it. Wendt already has at least two challengers, Ald. George Cardenas (12th) and Abdelnasser Rashid, a former policy officer in Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office who lost to Wendt in the 2020 primary.

Earlier this month, the board placed an employee on leave after a federal court affidavit revealed he allegedly took thousands of dollars in cash bribes to lower property tax assessments. The worker, calling himself just a “middle guy,” allegedly said he would split the money with colleagues. If this feels like déjà vu, it is. In just one other example, two workers were convicted in 2013 after they were secretly recorded taking $1,500 in cash bribes to fix property tax assessments.

Rigging appeals is not victimless. The Board of Review hears tons of appeals of property assessments. When it reduces assessments on one property — often at the request of lawyers who make donations to the commissioners — everyone else’s taxes go up. With that kind of power, the commissioners should be absolutely aboveboard.

They need to show rules in government hiring are followed strictly and everyone has job opportunities, not just friends and family. They need to show appeals are handled in a fair and professional manner, and that insider dealing and conflicts of interest are a thing of the past. They should refuse to accept donations, either directly or indirectly, from lawyers who appear before the Board of Review.

All that is especially true as the board stands accused of undermining Kaegi’s efforts to make assessments more equitable and transparent across the county.

Unseemly squabbling, watered-down ethics

At a board meeting in June, the board set out to rewrite its ethics policy to explicitly prohibit the hiring of first cousins, with Wendt voting against it. Cabonargi called Wendt’s action “flagrant nepotism.” But, of course, his colleague Rogers employed his half-brother for years at the Board of Review until 2012.

Wendt retorted Cabonargi and Rogers had violated the Open Meetings Act by talking to each other without her being present. She said they were territorial “bullies.” She also claimed she was being criticized because she is not part of the old boys’ club, which is hypocritical of someone who has allegedly hired a relative — just the sort of thing old boys’ clubs are criticized for.

The Illinois Supreme Court has said the Board of Review is a quasi-judicial body. Public sniping among its members is unseemly. You wouldn’t expect judges on an appellate bench to take public pot shots at each other.

When former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios was at the Board of Review, he took the position that county ethics rules didn’t apply to him. The county ethics board had accused Berrios of hiring his son and sister soon after winning election in 2010. In 2016, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled the County Board can make rules governing independently elected county officials, such as the Board of Review commissioners. The board can enact stricter policies than the county’s if it wishes, but it can’t duck county rules by passing its own watered-down policy.

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Public officials have a duty to show they are complying with the letter and the spirit of ethics rules. No one at the Board of Review should feel entitled to do otherwise.

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