(CN) – The Cook County Board of Review must face a racketeering lawsuit accusing its members of misusing the board’s power to lower property taxes for campaign donors, mainly real estate lawyers and law firms.
Victor Santana, a former board employee, filed a RICO lawsuit against the Cook County Board of Review, claiming its members, including Cook County Democratic Party Chairman Joseph Berrios, abused the board’s authority to scratch donors’ backs.
The board allegedly “institutionalized … bribery and pay-to-play as the mandatory regime for the adjudication of real estate tax appeals in Cook County.”
Santana said the board’s lack of a uniform system to adjudicate tax appeals allowed its members to arbitrarily grant tax reductions and to “treat unfairly” the files of attorneys and tax consultants who refused to donate.
“Therefore, files that were suspected to be associated with Plaintiff were segregated out and treated unfairly,” Santana claims.
This pay-to-play system allowed Berrios alone to rack up more than $3 million in campaign contributions from real estate tax attorneys, according to the lawsuit.
Board members used this money to pay for meals, shopping and other similar expenses, so they “would not have to report these voluminous expenditures” to the IRS, the complaint states.
Berrios allegedly took the extortion one step further. “He threatened Santana with fear of economic and reputational harm in exchange for procuring property and political consulting work from Santana for free,” the complaint states.
Three sets of defendants challenged the RICO claim, triggering an impassioned response by Santana’s lawyer.
“Santana’s counsel has responded with a highly repetitive 31-page memorandum, apparently feeling the need to make the same points again and again – both out of seeming frustration and in the understandable desire to persuade this Court that defendants’ attacks do not withstand analysis,” wrote U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur in Chicago.
The judge said the response, though long-winded, “has unquestionably been successful.”
The lawsuit is the most recent development in a two-year drama surrounding the quid pro quo allegations. The claims first emerged during the 2008 Democratic primary when Paul Froehlich, a state representative, was accused of using the board to give tax breaks to political supporters.
Chicago Magazine reported that “[d]ocuments from Froehlich’s office that were leaked to the media show Froehlich’s handwritten notes calculating the projected tax savings for the property owners. The notes also indicate what was promised in return … everything from making campaign donations to putting up lawn signs.”
The Cook County state attorney’s office opened an investigation of Froehlich and Berrios.
Berrios has served on the board in 1988. He was endorsed by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn in his current bid for county assessor, a post responsible for determining the values for all homes and commercial properties in Cook County.
According to Fox News Chicago, “people whose taxes were reduced got a friendly letter in the mail, not from the tax board, but from Froehlich’s office saying, ‘I’m happy to inform you that the assessment appeal I worked out for you was successful.'”
Cran & Norcross donated more than $143,000 to Berrios in the past decade, allegedly helping the law firm win more than $467.6 million in assessment reductions, according to an article in the New York Times.
During his service on the board, Santana acted as Berrios’ right-hand man.