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$400 Million Spied Missing in Cook County

CHICAGO (CN) - Cook County can't account for $380 million to $638 million in fees collected from litigants from 2001 to 2014, taxpayers claim in a lawsuit demanding that the state's attorney conduct an audit.

Harlan Berk and his company Harlan J. Berk Ltd. filed a federal complaint on Jan. 8 against Cook County and its state's attorney, Anita Alvarez. Berk is a numismatist: his company appraises, buys and sells ancient coins.

"Plaintiffs' claims arise from the discovery, confirmed by defendants, that, from 2001 through 2014, more than $400 million in public funds belonging to Cook County, Illinois pursuant to duly enacted legislation has been misapplied and continues to be misapplied," the complaint begins.

The money was collected as court costs from litigants in Cook County Court, but was not reported as receipts in reports issued by the clerk of the court, according to the complaint.

They include civil case filing fees, fees connected with other parties' appearances, and court costs imposed in criminal and traffic cases.

Calculations concerning the five funds covered in the court's annual reports "reveal a shortfall of between $380 million and nearly $638 million from 2001 through 2014," Berk says.

An additional $55 million to $90 million allegedly is missing from receipts for costs related to the Children's Waiting Room, Drug Court, Mental Health Court, Peer Jury Program, and Electronic Citations funds.

An Evanston doctor filed a class action in 2014 in state court based on the same claims, but an Illinois appeals court ruled that he had no standing to challenge how the Cook County Clerk processes court fees.

Berk seeks to differentiate his suit by founding it on a due process claim filed in Federal Court. He claims he has standing because taxpayers have been deprived of a significant amount of tax money without due process, money that should have gone to maintain the court system.

"Plaintiffs, as taxpayers, have suffered a deprivation of their property without due process of law because the only remedy available under state law to redress the loss of funds while under the dominion of the Clerk of the Court is being denied arbitrarily, at best, by the sitting State's Attorney, who, in obeisance to her client, will not take action to prevent or recover money that the State's Attorney knows was paid into the Clerk's office but was never reported in the financial reports that the Clerk is required by state law to provide and will not take action to require the County to conduct the audits also required by state law to protect the public fisc," the complaint states.

Berk seeks a court order demanding that Cook County conduct audits of the clerk's reports, and take appropriate action to recoup the missing - or stolen - money.

He is represented by Joseph Tighe with Alan J. Mandel Ltd. in Skokie.

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