This story was co-published with the Chicago Tribune.
Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios has never made any secret of his affinity for old-school politics that put a premium on loyalty and favors.
That approach has served him well in the Cook County Democratic Party, where he’s risen to chairman, and at the ballot box, where he’s won two terms as assessor and next year will seek a third.
But it also has caused problems for him with federal court monitors, who are not so fond of the old ways. For years they have been prodding Berrios to comply with standards from the landmark Shakman decree aimed at ending political patronage in local government.
The monitors’ reports, reviewed by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois, reveal a persistent pattern in Berrios’ office of improper hiring and firing, arbitrary staffing decisions and resistance to change. The pace of reform has been slow and the assessor’s commitment often tepid, records and interviews show.
Even after five years of court hearings and monitoring, the office has yet to emerge from federal oversight — and county taxpayers are paying a price. The county covers bills for both the Shakman attorneys and the court monitor, ongoing costs that now total more than $3 million, according to bills approved by a federal judge and county records.
The examination of Berrios’ struggle with Shakman compliance comes as the basic competence of his assessment operation has been challenged. The investigative series “The Tax Divide,” which launched in the Tribune in June, found deep flaws in property assessments under Berrios during many of the same years the office ran afoul of the Shakman agreement.
The series, based on an analysis of millions of property tax records, found that residential assessments in Cook County were inaccurate and unfair during Berrios’ tenure, punishing poorer residents and handing breaks to wealthier ones.
A December installment, co-published with ProPublica Illinois, exposed inequities and inaccuracies in Berrios’ commercial and industrial assessments during the years 2011 through 2015, with downtown skyscrapers landing massive breaks while small businesses got hit with unfair property tax bills.
The person now in charge of those valuations is Berrios’ daughter Vanessa, who was promoted into the job in 2016 — a move that the federal monitor said “flagrantly violated” employment guidelines.
Cynthia Canary, a good-government consultant, sees a connection between the way the assessor’s office operates under Berrios and the questions swirling around one of his most fundamental tasks: issuing accurate property assessments.
“If you’ve got an office that practices patronage and disregards rules, I don’t think we should be surprised that the outcomes we get, in terms of assessments, are shoddy,” said Canary, who formerly ran the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and headed an ethics task force for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“It’s like garbage in, garbage out.”
One monitor report, filed in late 2014, found that a department in the assessor’s office that gathers data to calculate property values was “impacted by political patronage.” That report also found that some workers who handle technical reviews — a final step in assessments where information can be corrected or added — felt underused, saying they were getting cut out of decisions they had made before Berrios took office.
“The staff does not feel utilized despite having the working knowledge and skills to get the job done,” the monitor wrote.
Hired by Berrios to serve as his director of compliance, Deborah Ellis pushed hard for new policies at the assessor’s office. But in 2014, about 15 months into her job, Berrios fired her.
“Nobody likes change,” Ellis said in a text message, in response to questions for this story. “Especially if it is perceived as a limitation of power. Or a disruption.”
In an interview, Berrios declined to discuss Ellis’ dismissal and said he’s making progress in bringing his office up to speed with what Shakman and the federal court monitors demand, despite a shrinking payroll. “Believe me, I want them out of here,” he said of the monitors.
Berrios also defended his practice of carrying relatives on his public payroll and the hiring of political allies from the Cook County Board of Review, where he had served as tax appeals commissioner for two decades. He said the hires — who included his son and a sister — arrived with deep and valuable experience from years of working in the property tax system.
“They all work hard,” Berrios said, adding: “They will do whatever they have to do to make sure the assessments come through fair for everyone.”
Berrios, who manages more than 260 employees and a $24.8 million annual budget, scoffed at suggestions that personnel moves hurt his office’s ability to determine property values. “No, that’s totally untrue,” he said. “We’re doing our job.”
This year Berrios hired a former assistant state’s attorney to help meet the anti-patronage standards.
Berrios also noted that he has finished assessments on time six years in a row, helping local governments save “millions and millions” on borrowing costs.
Yet a Tribune-ProPublica Illinois analysis of tens of thousands of commercial and industrial parcels found numerous values that remained identical from one reassessment period to the next, three years later. Experts said that would be virtually impossible had the assessor’s office actually done the work of valuing the property.
Michael Shakman, the attorney who brought the original case against local governments over unfair hiring and personnel practices, said the assessor’s office has moved too slowly and is far from reformed.
Political favoritism and inconsistency in hiring, promotions and other employment decisions can create a “negative impact, both on the morale of the people in the office who are trying to do the work the right way and on the quality of the work that gets done,” Shakman said in an interview.
The ‘Berrios People’
Not much time ticked off the clock between Berrios taking the oath of office for his first term and the assessor’s new team calling veteran workers into private meetings to let them go.
“They just had an assembly line, going in one after another,” said Robert Johnson, a longtime employee who said the group was notified within hours of Berrios taking charge on Dec. 6, 2010. “They introduced themselves, ‘Nice to meet you.’ They said they wanted to go in a different direction. They told you to turn in your keys, your IDs, all that stuff.”
The sweep ultimately caused county taxpayers to pay $529,000 in compensation to 11 workers fired in acts of “unlawful political discrimination.” The federal court monitor later described the moves as evidence that the assessor wanted to “make room” for the people he wanted to hire.
Johnson, who received $95,000 in compensation, said in an interview that he outlined for the monitor his three decades of work in the assessor’s office and his role managing how property parcels got shaped. Johnson also took issue with the person who would later get his job: Michael LaCalamita, whose mother, Victoria, became Berrios’ human resources chief.
“They were big buddies and all this,” Johnson said.
The assessor acknowledges that Victoria LaCalamita is a close friend he’s known since 1980. But Berrios brushed aside Johnson’s objections, saying, “Everyone has a chance to…