Originally published Aug. 1, 2015
No introductions are needed when the law firm of Crane and Norcross goes to Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios asking him to lower the value he’s placed on properties owned by the firm’s clients.
The Chicago law firm comes to Berrios to lower the property assessments on hundreds of properties across the city and suburbs each year, saving some of its clients as much as $100,000 or more in property taxes as a result.
Since September 2009, when he launched his first campaign for assessor, Berrios’ campaign funds have gotten $60,900 in contributions from employees of Crane and Norcross, records show. The funds he controls have gotten another $29,100 from Madison Appraisal, a firm Crane and Norcross often uses to compile the data it submits to persuade Berrios to lower property assessments.
Now, Berrios has hired a Crane family member as his chief deputy assessor — Christopher M. Crowley, the founder of Madison Appraisal. Crowley’s uncle, Michael Crane, heads Crane and Norcross. Crowley’s sister and father work for the law firm.
Crowley — the only applicant for the $144,337-a-year job last December — replaced Robert L. Kruse, who retired from the county payroll and then, according to his online profile on the LinkedIn job-networking site, went to work for Madison Appraisal, where Kruse’s son had worked with Crowley for years.
State business records also show Crowley, 49, and the elder Kruse, 65, ran a company called Global Strategy Group LLC during the time Crane and Norcross and other law firms were using appraisals from Crowley’s company to file appeals with the assessor’s office. Kruse was chief deputy at the time.
Nearly 20 percent of all property appeals filed with the assessor’s office between 2010 and 2014 came from Crane and Norcross, according to assessor’s records. Crane and Norcross won reductions in 65 percent of those cases, cutting clients’ property-tax bills as a result of the lowered assessments.
Since Crowley started as chief deputy assessor, his family’s law firm had filed 1,015 appeals with Berrios as of June 18, according to records the assessor’s office provided. Crane and Norcross got assessment reductions in 55 percent of the 249 cases that had been decided.
Crane and Norcross and Madison Appraisal have worked on appeals for Gibson’s Steakhouse, whose partners included Crane’s late business partner John Norcross, Maywood Park horse track, Prudential Insurance, a now-shuttered Ford dealership in Calumet City and dozens of other properties.
Berrios and Crowley declined interview requests. Crane and Kruse didn’t return phone and email messages seeking comment.
Berrios spokesman Tom Shaer says there’s no conflict of interest in having Crowley serve as chief deputy assessor while his agency decides whether to give reductions to clients of his uncle’s law firm or the appraisal company he owned.
“Upon his hiring, chief deputy Crowley recused himself from even potential involvement in matters involving Crane & Norcross,” Shaer says in an emailed response to questions. “Most important, his position is not part of the valuation or appeals processes. The chief deputy oversees and manages policy and administration of the assessor’s office.”
No one other than Crowley applied for the job, “but others were considered for the position,” according to Shaer, who says Berrios interviewed Crowley on Dec. 22.
Seven days later, Crowley started work at the assessor’s office, according to county records. Kruse retired two days later and now gets a yearly county pension of $71,916.48.
According to Shaer, the ties among Crane and Norcross, Madison Appraisal, Crowley and Berrios have no bearing on the county agency’s decisions.
“Assessor Berrios does not allow matters unrelated to the jurisdiction and responsibilities of this office to affect the work done here to assure no one pays more than their fair share of property taxes,” Shaer says.
Berrios’ hiring decisions have come under fire since he took office in December 2010 and hired his sister and his son. His daughter already had a job with the assessor’s office.
The Cook County Board of Ethics tried to fine him $10,000 for violating the county’s anti-nepotism rules. But a judge ruled the board had no authority to fine Berrios — a decision the board is asking him to reconsider.
Crane and Norcross — where Crowley’s father James P. Crowley is a tax consultant and his sister Susan Crowley is an attorney — is among the law firms in Chicago that specialize in winning property-tax reductions, a process that starts with an appeal to the county assessor.
Two other top property tax appeals firms are run by two of the state’s most powerful politicians: Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, D-Chicago, and Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th). Madigan is chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party. Burke has one of the largest political war chests in Illinois.
As Chicago Democratic committeemen, both Madigan and Burke helped elect Berrios chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.
Madigan’s firm, Madigan & Getzendanner, and Burke’s firm, Klafter & Burke, file hundreds of appeals a year with Berrios.
In addition to being the elected Cook County assessor, Berrios also co-owns a consulting company — B-P Consultants Inc. — that lobbies Madigan and other state lawmakers on behalf of Comcast and other clients, state records show.
Berrios’ private business also has a contract with the Pace suburban bus agency to lobby Burke and the rest of the Chicago City Council.
The political insiders game in the assessor’s office dates back decades. Crane and Norcross also contributed to the political campaigns of Berrios’ two most recent predecessors, James M. Houlihan and Thomas Hynes.
In Cook County, the assessor determines market values that are used to determine property-tax payments. Thousands of property owners — especially the owners of commercial and industrial buildings — hire law firms to challenge their assessments. And those law firms hire appraisers of their own to contest the assessor’s calculations.
After reviewing the appraisals prepared by private firms on behalf of property owners filing appeals, the assessor often lowers his proposed assessment. A lower assessment means they pay less in property taxes.
Often, seeking even greater savings, property owners continue their appeals to the next levels — to the Cook County Board of Review, the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board and the Cook County courts. Berrios was one of three Board of Review members before he was elected assessor.
Crowley has worked in the appraisal business for 26 years. In 1995, he created a company called Prime Appraisal, which was closed in 2007 when he opened Madison Appraisal.
The following year, Crowley and Kruse formed Global Strategy Group LLC, records show. They continued operating the firm after Berrios hired Kruse in 2010.
Berrios didn’t know about the Crowley-Kruse company until asked about it by a Chicago Sun-Times reporter, according to Shaer.
“Global Strategy Partners LLC was dissolved in approximately June 2014, after six years of inactivity,” according to Shaer. “This company never performed any work, and the income it generated throughout its existence was -0-.”
As chief deputy assessor, Kruse’s job description initially called for him to spend more than half his time approving “assessment decisions on major industrial/commercial property” and providing “guidance and direction” on property valuations and appeals.
But his job description was changed in September 2013, no longer requiring him to have a direct role in deciding assessments.
That change came three months before state regulators refused to renew Kruse’s real estate appraisal license, saying Kruse had falsely claimed to have taken required continuing-education classes, records show.
Kruse remained chief deputy assessor even as his business partner Crowley continued to do work for Crane and Norcross, which submitted appeals to the assessor’s office.
In August 2014, Crane and Norcross appealed the assessment on the Maywood Park horse track using a Madison Appraisal analysis signed by Crowley, records show. The assessor didn’t reduce the track’s assessment that year.
A month after the Maywood Park appeal was submitted, the state of Illinois formally dissolved Global Strategy Group. That was after Kruse and Crowley apparently didn’t submit required paperwork.
By the end of the year, Kruse had retired, and Berrios hired Crowley, who was president of Madison Appraisal.
Shaer says Crowley has sold his stake in the appraisal firm to appraiser Joseph Calvanico and no longer has any connection to the firm.