Board of Review’s probe into bribes for tax breaks is stymied by employee’s ‘inability to recall passcode’ to county-issued cellphone
The internal investigation was sparked by a Sun-Times report on an FBI investigation into a bribery scheme at the Cook County Board of Review.
An employee of the Cook County Board of Review under investigation for allegedly accepting bribes to lower property taxes stymied a law firm hired to look into the matter by refusing to be interviewed and claiming he forgot the passcode to his county-issued cellphone.
Attorneys with Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila LLP were hired by the Board of Review in response to a Sun-Times story published last year that pulled back the curtain on a sting operation in which an individual secretly cooperating with the FBI allegedly paid the Board of Review employee cash bribes in exchange for lower property assessments.
Details of the FBI investigation came to the attention of the Sun-Times in July 2021 through online court records that were quickly sealed after the Sun-Times reviewed them and asked about their contents.
A picture of the employee thumbing through a stack of cash was included in the 45-page affidavit filed by the feds. The employee told the cooperating witness that he was “just the middle guy,” and the cash was intended to be split with others in his office, according to the affidavit.
The feds’ cooperating witness broached the idea of having property assessments lowered for an associate 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, 2021.
Lowering the property assessment of a commercial property cost $2,000, according to the feds. A home? That was a $1,000 bribe.
The Sun-Times article prompted officials at the Board of Review to hire the high-profile Chicago law firm through a contract worth up to $110,000 to look into the alleged bribery.
During a virtual meeting Friday morning, an attorney for the firm laid out the results of its investigation.
“Employee A declined to be interviewed,” attorney Kelly Warner said. “In addition, we were unable to review data stored on the cellphone issued to Employee A by the board due to Employee A’s inability to recall the passcode for the phone. Subject to these limitations, we did not find any evidence of Employee A’s solicitation or acceptance of bribes as reported by the Sun-Times in the information to which we had access.”
Warner said the firm’s investigation was limited by a lack of subpoena power and a subsequent inability to obtain things like personal bank records or data from personal email accounts or cellphones.
Attorneys conducting the probe also didn’t have access to the affidavit the Sun-Times story was based on, which included portions of transcripts of phone conversations in which the employee discussed the scheme. The restraints left attorneys unable to identify the properties that were at the heart of the alleged bribery scheme, she said.
But it wasn’t all bad, Warner said.
“We did, however, find a strong compliance culture at the Board of Review with a high level of transparency and safeguards inherent in the OnBase system, which protects the property appeals process,” Warner said.
Warner recommended that the Board of Review consider hiring a general counsel or ethics officer, revise ethics training to create situational training that includes hypothetical scenarios, and create an anonymous forum for employees to report ethical violations.
Board of Review Commissioner Larry Rogers Jr. thanked Warner for her work and touched briefly on the alleged bribery scheme.
“We work very hard in our agency to have an honest and ethical agency that meets the needs of the residents of Cook County. That being the case, this employee apparently was alleged to have done some things, but it doesn’t appear that there was any evidence of untoward activity within the agency, which was a good thing, which we’re happy to hear,” Rogers said.