Litigant Says Court Clerk’s Books Don’t Add Up

CHICAGO (CN) – A Chicago-based coin dealer claims in court that hundreds of millions of dollars disappeared from public funds controlled by the Cook County Circuit Court and county officials refuse to acknowledge the deficiencies.

Harlan J. Berk and his company, Harlan J. Berk Ltd., filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Cook County officials, including the president of the county board, Toni Preckwinkle, and Cook County commissioners.

In his 131-page complaint for a writ of mandamus filed in county court, Berk claims the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office unreported receipts by hundreds of millions of dollars from 2001 to 2015.

“The underreported receipts comprise portions of otherwise booked or acknowledged transactions that disappeared from the bottom line each year ($211 million) and transactions that were never booked ($242 to $551 million),” the lawsuit states. “The figures published by the office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois establish both the fact and the magnitude of the shortfalls, that, added together, amount to between half and three-quarters of a billion dollars.”

Berk says he and his coin shop are Illinois taxpayers and have been litigants in the circuit court. The court clerk’s office takes in nearly $200 million per year from litigants that goes into various funds, his complaint states.

Ten public funds are affected, according to Berk, including the mandatory arbitration fund, Cook County Law Library fund, children’s waiting room fund, court automation fund, security fund, document storage fund, mental health court fund, peer jury fund, drug court fund and electronic citations fund.

Berk estimates the total amount of unaccounted-for money to be between $452.8 million and $761.6 million.

In October 2015, the Cook County auditor told Preckwinkle and county commissioners about the multiple deficiencies in the annual reports, according to the complaint, but the circuit court clerk’s office has refused to comply with county ordinances and cooperate with the auditor,

“The published reports reveal the loss of significant funds without a public trace,” Berk claims, adding that the clerk’s office refuses to even acknowledge the deficiencies.

For all of the funds at issue except for the electronic citations fund, the authority to collect money from parties in lawsuits obligates Cook County to spend the collected money only for purposes defined by legislation, the complaint states.

Berk says Cook County also did not spend its special-purpose money as directed by law. As an example, he cites the county’s alleged failure to account for surplus funds that were appropriated for the special-purpose programs but were neither expended during the year nor carried into the following year.

Berk seeks to compel Cook County to provide an honest and accurate accounting of the 10 special-purpose funds made up of money from litigants. He asks for a separate accounting to be provided to the pubic.

“Without orders of the court directing the county to do its job, the county will continue to look the other way while public funds are taken without further report,” the complaint states. “By waste, acquiescence, or otherwise, it has and will continue to allow restricted funds to be spent by someone without ensuring compliance, and, with the money it receives, it has and will continue to use restricted funds without restriction.”

Berk says a writ of mandamus will hold Cook County accountable for its use of public money, “starting with the money in its constructive possession and permitted to disappear and ending with the money that managed to survive efforts to divert cash for undisclosed purposes but somehow remained on the books at the end of the year.”

Preckwinkle declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Berk is represented by David Novoselsky in Waukegan, Ill.