Cook County taxpayers are expected to end up shelling out more than $500,000 to nearly a dozen people Assessor Joseph Berrios fired for unlawful political reasons after his election in 2010.
The payments, which county commissioners will consider Wednesday, represents the latest and costliest battle in Berrios’ disagreement with county ethics watchdogs over nepotism and patronage hiring.
Berrios, who doubles as county Democratic chairman, took over as assessor in December 2010. The unabashedly old-school politician fired a slew of employees and brought in his own team, which included his son, his sister and a trusted lawyer from his previous job at the Board of Review.
Asked Tuesday about the case, Berrios said he thought the workers he dismissed held policy positions for which it is permissible to hire, promote and fire for political reasons. “I thought they were all at-will employees,” he said.
A federal court monitor assigned to monitor the assessor’s office as a part of the long-running Shakman case, which bars taking politics into account for most city and county hiring, saw it differently.
The court official, Clifford Meacham, recommended that 11 people be paid between $1,000 to $95,000 as part of an agreement Berrios entered into centering on new hiring, firing and promotion rules and regulations to be overseen by the court.
Although Meacham has yet to issue his formal report on the payments, all are a result of “unlawful political discrimination,” according to the County Board agenda. Commissioner Peter Silvestri, R-Elmwood Park, said the board is obligated to approve the payments.
“I’m troubled” by the amount, said Silvestri, chairman of the board’s Litigation Committee. “But I understand. I don’t want to accept it. But I have to.”
Berrios said his goal is to get to “100 percent compliance” with the new rules — something the monitor identified as a ways off in a report released in February.
The assessor has clashed with county ethics officials, who argue Berrios has violated an ordinance that bars officials from hiring relatives. Berrios maintains that as a separately elected countywide official, he does not fall under the jurisdiction of ethics laws drawn up the County Board. He also has resisted the county inspector general’s attempts to subpoena documents.
The dispute over the county’s anti-nepotism laws surfaced again this week when county Inspector General Patrick Blanchard revealed in a report that county Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough has hired her niece. Although not named, the Tribune determined she is Chloe Pedersen, who as legal and labor counsel to Yarbrough makes $114,622 a year.
Blanchard recommended the niece be fired, but Yarbrough said the inspector general had no authority over her — the same argument Berrios has made. Yarbrough said she hired her niece because she had “the best qualifications. . . . I think most people recognize it’s important to have someone you know and trust as your legal counsel.”