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Feds investigating former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, records show

The authorities are interested in his access to private planes and boats, among other matters, according to a grand jury subpoena obtained by the Sun-Times.

Former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios.
Former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios.
Sun-Times files

A federal grand jury subpoena obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times shows investigators are digging into former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios and his political organization.

The subpoena seeks documents related to Berrios’ 31st Ward Democratic Organization, his Friends of Berrios campaign fund and the Mexican American Political Action Committee.

The subpoena asks for information about contributions to Berrios’ retirement party and his access to private planes and boats, among other things.

It also seeks any items “related to any official action taken in exchange for a benefit” and specifies the type of actions — including “assessor recommendations, certificates of correction, certificates of error, property valuations and re-reviews.”

Those refer to the actions the assessor’s office can take related to setting — and reducing — property valuations for real estate tax purposes.

Similar subpoenas were received by several current and former employees of the assessor’s office, a source said.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago declined to comment.

The subpoenas are the first public indication that Berrios is a subject of federal investigation, his name until now missing from the wide-ranging political corruption probes that have sent tremors through Cook County Democratic politics, including the indictment of Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), a property tax lawyer.

Approached by a Chicago Sun-Times reporter Tuesday evening in the bar at the Erie Cafe, Berrios said: “Write your story. I’m having a good time. I have nothing to say.”

“Leave him alone,” interjected Proco “Joe” Moreno, the former 1st Ward alderman who was indicted in June on charges that he loaned a car to a girlfriend and then claimed it was stolen.

Berrios was ousted from the assessor’s office with last year’s election of Fritz Kaegi. A month after losing the Democratic primary to Kaegi in March 2018, Berrios relinquished his chairmanship of the Cook County Democratic Party and was replaced by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Berrios also is giving up the 31st Ward Democratic committeeman post he has held since 1987. Berrios didn’t file to run in the March primary for the party position, now called “committeeperson,” paving the way for his ally Ald. Felix Cardona Jr. to take over.

Kaegi spokesman Scott Smith said the assessor’s office would not confirm or deny the existence of a federal investigation.

“The office has not received any federal or state law enforcement subpoenas pursuant to an investigation,” Smith said. “If this changes, we are prepared to fully cooperate with any investigation.”

Berrios came under particular criticism from Kaegi and others during the assessor election for allegedly undervaluing major downtown commercial properties to the disadvantage of homeowners.

The grand jury subpoena obtained by the Sun-Times, dated earlier this month, seeks communications and correspondence — including emails — related to the three political committees and their officers, employees and representatives.

It also asks for documentation “related to any benefit discussed, provided, agreed to be provided, or arranged to be provided to any public official or employee, or family member, friend, or nominee of any such person.”

The benefits specifically mentioned are: “airplane tickets, alcohol, barbecue grills, boat access, books, cigars or cigar merchandise, concerts, contributions related to the retirement party for former Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios, furniture, gifts, golf outings, trips, the provision of meals, parties, private plane access and sporting-event tickets.”

During his career as assessor, and before that as a commissioner on the Cook County Board of Review, Berrios raised millions of dollars in campaign contributions from lawyers who represent property owners seeking to reduce their taxes.

He also was notorious for hiring and promoting his relatives.

Berrios hired his son, Joseph “Joey” Berrios, and his sister, Carmen Berrios. His daughter, Vanessa Berrios, had already been working in the office but got a promotion and a $10,000 annual raise when her father took over.

Another Berrios daughter, Maria “Toni” Berrios, is a former state representative who has become a state lobbyist whose clients include Exelon Generation. Exelon and its Commonwealth Edison subsidiary are under federal investigation for their lobbying activities, the companies have previously disclosed.

Toni Berrios’ husband, James T. Weiss, is a businessman heavily involved in the sweepstakes gambling industry that is at the center of October’s arrest of state Rep. Luis Arroyo on bribery charges.

The former assessor’s latest campaign finance filings indicate he had only $17,301 left in Friends of Berrios at the end of September. The 31st Ward Democratic Organization reported having no money.

The Mexican American PAC has no known direct affiliation with Berrios, but the organization has donated $85,000 to Berrios’ campaign funds in just the past two years — with $15,000 in 2019 and $70,000 in 2018.

Its chairman is Daniel Arce, general manager of Tropical Optical Vision Centers. Arce has been a major fundraiser in Latino politics and the recipient of numerous government contracts.

Contributing: Jon Seidel