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Cook County Board approves $529,000 for patronage case

Cook County GovernmentCook County Board of CommissionersEthicsTodd H. StrogerEarlean Collins

The Cook County Board today approved a payout of more than $500,000 to nearly a dozen people that a federal court monitor determined were fired for unlawful political reasons by Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios after he took office in late 2010.

Two commissioners — Chicago Democrats Earlean Collins and Deborah Sims — both voted against making the payments. They decried the millions of dollars paid out by the county since 2007 to hiring monitors appointed by the federal court to help remove political considerations from most county personnel decisions.

“It was wrong for us to spend all of this money,” said Sims, a onetime ally of former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, whose father John Stroger oversaw a patronage empire in Cook County. “Somebody found a way to make money off the county, and they did.”

Federal court judges appointed the monitors under agreements with civil rights attorney Michael Shakman and the county, first entered into during Todd Stroger’s sole term in office, to set up procedures to rid the county of a decades-long practice of hiring, firing and promoting people for political reasons.

The city of Chicago has a similar agreement, entered during former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 22 years in office.

The payments approved by monitor Clifford Meacham in connection with Berrios 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, is an unabashedly old-school politician who upon entering office 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.

Meacham saw it differently. He 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.

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 the inspector general, who argues Berrios has violated a county ethics 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 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. That’s more than Yarbrough’s salary, which is $105,000.
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 niecebecause she had “the best qualifications. . . . I think most people recognize it’s important to have someone you know and trust as your legal counsel.”

hdardick@tribune.com
Twitter @ReporterHal

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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