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Berrios criticized for 'overkill' after he accuses 20,000 homeowners of tax fraud

Critics say Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios has cast too wide a net in his search for property tax cheats | (Sun-Times file photo/Tom Cruze)

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios has been accused of “overkill” after his office sent threatening letters to more than 20,000 homeowners, warning them that they are being investigated for tax fraud.

The assessor’s office says the mass mailing was necessary to claw back millions of dollars from tax cheats who unfairly claim homeowner’s exemptions on properties they don’t live in.

But apparently law-abiding residents across the northern suburbs were alarmed to receive the sternly worded legal letters, informing them that they were under investigation for fraudulently claiming the exemption on “one or more” homes.

Since every homeowner who lives in his or her own home is entitled to an exemption, residents say they’re bewildered as to why they were included in Berrios’ dragnet.

“I felt a little intimidated,” said photographer Bill Burlingham, 65, who lives in a mid-century ranch in Skokie with his wife, Kay, and received one of the letters May 16. “I thought it was probably a mistake, because I’m just an honest, taxpaying individual.”

The letter warned the Burlinghams that they could be forced to pay up to six years of back taxes, plus penalties and interest, and have a lien placed on their home. Like hundreds of other homeowners, they reached out last week to Niles Township Assessor Scott Bagnall for reassurance.

“Many people are upset. They’re worried that they’re going to lose their house even though they know they’ve done nothing wrong,” said Bagnall, who predicted the overwhelming majority of those who received the threatening letters will be shown to be innocent.

Bagnall, who is elected to “assist” the Cook County assessor at a local level, said he supports efforts to clamp down on tax cheats, including those who claim homeowner exemptions on more than one property.

But he said he would be “absolutely amazed” if even 2,000 of the 20,000 who received the letters were shown to be cheats. “It’s likely that a couple of guilty people will get caught up in the net,” he said. “But this is overkill — the tone of the letter was so threatening.”

Bagnall said he immediately reached out to Berrios’ office to get more information but that nobody there was able to explain to him precisely what criteria were used to decide who would receive the letters.

An analysis of homeowners who complained to him about receiving the threatening letters, however, suggests the assessor’s office simply targeted anyone who claimed an exemption on more than one plot of land, he said.

Since many modest suburban homes straddle two or more tax liable plots — known as “property information numbers” or PINs — thousands of homeowners were needlessly placed under suspicion, he surmised.

Berrios spokeswoman Maura Kownacki said anyone who was thought to have claimed more than one homeowner exemption in the north suburbs received the threatening letter.

She acknowledged homeowners who claim a legitimate exemption on a home that straddles two PINs would have been among those targeted, but said that was necessary since some some homes that stretch across multiple PINs have been involved in frauds.

It “certainly was not our intention” to frighten law-abiding homeowners who pay their taxes, she said. “If a taxpayer has only one property, or has only claimed exemptions on the property that is their principal place of residence, they have no cause to be concerned.”

More generally, she defended the effort to clamp down on “erroneous” homeowner exemptions, noting Berrios has collected an additional $9.4 million and billed a further $10 million in improperly claimed exemptions since a 2013 law empowered him to aggressively go after tax dodgers.

While those funds were recovered during an amnesty and after tipsters told Berrios’ staff about suspected tax cheats, the 20,000 letters mailed to the north suburbs earlier this month mark the first step of a more systematic audit of the entire county, Kownacki said.

“Prior to this law, there was nothing in place to deter taxpayers from receiving multiple exemptions and nothing could be done to help recover the money, she said.

But Bagnall isn’t buying that argument. On top of the stress it unnecessarily caused innocent homeowners, the mailing “sounds expensive” and could have been done far more cheaply if it had been more carefully targeted, he said.

Bagnall added a website the letter directed homeowners to log on to for more information was not operational when the letters were received, and he was troubled by the implication that homeowners had to provide evidence to clear themselves when they had done nothing wrong.

He said he believes Berrios had good intentions and probably thought, “I’ll look like a great American hero,” when he decided to go after tax cheats.

But he said he told the assessor’s staff that their plan to continue mailing households in such large numbers was “the dumbest thing I ever heard in my life.”