Judge rules county watchdog has right to watch Berrios

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Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios has publicly shrugged off the county’s watchdog by refusing to cooperate with investigations into wrongdoing in the assessor’s office.

But now it’s Cook County Inspector General Pat Blanchard’s turn to crow, after a judge gave him a preliminary victory last week in his ongoing legal battle with Berrios.

Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama ruled that Blanchard has every right to investigate Berrios’ office and issue subpoenas. The ruling has widespread implications for other independently-elected Cook County officials who have also resisted Blanchard’s investigations.

“The purpose of the [inspector general] is to ‘detect, deter, and prevent corruption, fraud, waste, mismanagement, unlawful political discrimination or misconduct,’ ” Valderrama said in a written ruling. “The [inspector general] ordinance requires the assessor, like every other county officer, to cooperate with and comply.” 

In court, Berrios’ attorneys argued the state — not the county — had the authority to investigate the assessor’s office. 

Similar arguments had been made by several other independently elected Cook County officials, including the treasurer’s office, the Board of Review, the recorder of deeds’ office and the Sheriff’s Merit Board.

But Valderrama disagreed with that logic. He suggested that both state and county officials could conduct investigations. Furthermore, he wrote that if lawmakers want to bar Blanchard from investigating officeholders such as Berrios, they need to pass a law specifically limiting his authority.

Reached Monday, Berrios said he was unaware of the court’s ruling. But he expects his attorney — the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office — to file an appeal. 

“The state’s attorney is the one doing the case,” Berrios said.  “They are the ones pursuing this, and they’re the ones telling me what to do.”

Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, could not be reached for comment Monday. 

The standoff between Berrios and Blanchard started in August of 2012, when Blanchard requested records on a questionable property tax break claimed by Berrios office manager, Lewis Towers.

In response, Berrios’ staff  resisted Blanchard and told him to file a Freedom of Information Act request. Blanchard responded by issuing a subpoena, which Berrios’ office argued Blanchard had no authority to issue.  

Berrios on Monday said he didn’t understand what the hubbub was about.

“We did our own investigation and had already acted on what [Blanchard] had requested. We had already made a decision,” Berrios said.

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