Bribes for tax breaks: FBI investigating Board of Review employee who allegedly offered to lower property assessments for cash
Lowering the property assessment of a commercial property cost $2,000, according to the feds. A home? That was a $1,000 bribe to a Board of Review employee who insisted he was sharing the bribes with co-workers.
The FBI has been investigating a Cook County Board of Review employee who allegedly used his position to lower property assessments in exchange for thousands of dollars in cash bribes, according to a federal court affidavit obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
That employee also said the money would be split with others in the office, insisting that, “I’m just the middle guy” and that certain colleagues had factored the cash into vacation plans as the recent Fourth of July holiday approached, according to the 45-page document.
The federal probe dates to at least January 2019 and involves an unnamed individual who was secretly cooperating with the feds and is separately under criminal investigation, according to the affidavit. The Sun-Times is not naming the Board of Review employee at the center of the probe because records show he has not been criminally charged. He could not be reached Monday for comment.
The revelation of alleged corruption could deal another blow to public confidence in Cook County’s property tax system, just as tax bills are supposed to be hitting mailboxes. The bills already might be delayed because of “major errors” the Sun-Times exposed in a $250 million-a-year program that offers a tax break to certain seniors.
The Board of Review employee at the center of the feds’ investigation allegedly offered to have property assessments lowered for bribes — $2,000 for every commercial property; $1,000 for every residential property. Assessments are a key factor in calculating property tax bills.
The worker allegedly made arrangements to meet the cooperating witness July 1 to collect $22,000 as part of the scheme. The feds filed their affidavit on June 30, seeking a judge’s permission to search the Board of Review employee and his phone.
The Sun-Times obtained the document while it was publicly available on the court docket. It has since been sealed.
A spokesman for U.S. Attorney John Lausch declined to comment.
Told about the affidavit, Board of Review Commissioner Larry Rogers Jr. said in a written statement, “We take any allegation of impropriety very seriously and will be opening an investigation.”
Commissioner Michael Cabonargi said, “We will be directing the Board of Review’s ethics officer to open an investigation immediately.”
Commissioner Tammy Wendt said: “It is not a surprise to me as I have discovered a culture at the Board of Review that believes it operates in a vacuum. I have pressed the issue of adhering to the Open Meetings Act, homeowner appeal denials, financial responsibility and other issues of concern in my short time at the Board. I hope this serves as a wake-up call to everyone. If this was truly an organized crew inside the Cook County Board of Review, we need to do a full forensic accounting of any and all work touched by those named in this investigation.”
Sources at the board said the employee at the center of the feds’ probe had, since 1995, been a member of the administrative clerk’s staff, which has no signing authority in the review process.
The feds’ cooperating witness broached the idea of having property assessments lowered for an associate of his on July 13, 2020, according to the affidavit. His conversations with the Board of Review employee eventually resulted in him sending property index numbers by email for 18 commercial properties and seven residential properties on Jan. 5.
The Board of Review worker allegedly told the cooperating witness in a phone call later that day that “everything’s doable.” He allegedly said, “on these commercial pieces . . . they want 2K apiece . . . ’cause then it gets split up between everybody.” For residential properties, he allegedly said, “it’s, uh, a grand apiece.”
“Half now and half when it’s completed,” the employee allegedly said, later agreeing on $21,000 for the first half.
The cooperating witness allegedly delivered the money to the Board of Review employee in a Skokie parking lot Jan. 15, according to the affidavit.
The cooperating witness said, “sorry it’s not a little bit more organized, brother, but count it.” The worker allegedly replied, “I ain’t gonna count it . . . I’ll count it when I get home.”
A photograph of the employee holding the money also appears in the feds’ affidavit.
The employee also suggested his cut would be $250 per property, and his colleagues would get the rest, saying, “I’m gonna get outta this one, 250’s f---ing my cut. Which, f--- it. I don’t give a f---. I’m just the middle guy pushing.”
The employee allegedly sent the cooperating witness the new assessments in May. Then, when the two men talked last month, the cooperating witness said he had told his associate, “you saved $99,000, around $99,059, somewhere in that range.”
But the associate still owed another $22,000, according to the affidavit. After the cooperating witness suggested delaying the payment, the Board of Review worker allegedly said he spoke to his colleagues and “got my f---ing head chewed off.”
“They said, ‘We made a deal. We proved to him that we’re [re]liable,’” the worker allegedly said on June 9. “He goes, ‘They already accounted for that money for their vacations and s—-.”
On June 10, the cooperating witness allegedly sent the employee a phone message that read, “All good for the 22. I’ll have it before the holiday.” Then, on June 22, he sent a message asking if they could meet July 1, according to the feds.
“That’s fine see you on the 1st,” the worker allegedly replied.
Contributing: Tim Novak and Lauren FitzPatrick