Maria Gonzalez, a former employee in
the Cook County assessor’s office, has pleaded guilty to two counts of theft and
one count of misconduct for taking more than $9,000 in kickbacks from property
owners in exchange for helping them get fraudulent property tax refunds,
according to the Daily Herald.
The Daily Herald explained that as part of her guilty plea, Gonzalez will
receive two years’ probation and have to pay $719 in fines and $40,000 in
Gonzalez was able to run her scheme thanks to her position as a tax information
specialist, a position she’d worked since 2001. Gonzalez’s job was to make sure
homeowners who requested refunds through homeowner exemption certificate of
error applications had actually overpayed and were entitled to refunds.
Prosecutors have pointed to four instances from April 2010 to February 2011 when
Gonzalez received money in exchange for helping property owners get refunds for
which they were not eligible, according to the Herald.
This guilty plea is just more bad news for the Cook County assessor’s office,
which has found itself shrouded in controversy after a Chicago Tribune
investigation revealed deep inequality in the office’s property valuations. The
Tribune found that the assessor’s office would regularly overvalue lower-income
homes and lowball expensive properties.
Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios – who also serves as chairman of the Cook
County Democratic Party – has denied any wrongdoing in relation to the Tribune
investigation. But questions have long abounded about valuations from Berrios’
office and his relationship with some of Illinois’ most prominent politicians,
including Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
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Berrios has been a co-owner of a consulting company that has done
lobbying work in Springfield, and Madigan is a partner at Madigan &
Getzendanner, a prominent Chicago-based real estate law firm. Madigan’s law firm
makes millions by appealing its clients’ property tax valuations. The consulting
company with which Berrios has been affiliated, on the other hand, relies on
having good relationships with lawmakers such as Madigan in its lobbying work.
And Madigan isn’t the only politician who works in valuation appeals. Chicago
Alderman Ed Burke, 14th Ward, also is a partner in a Cook County law firm that
does property tax work. And Senate President John Cullerton and state Rep.
Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, both work at law firms that handle Cook County
property tax appeals.
In addition to his job as Cook County assessor, his position as Cook County
Democratic Party chairman and his consulting work, Berrios has also been an
effective fundraiser. While serving on the Cook County Board of Review and
before he was elected Cook County assessor in 2010, Berrios raised $3 million in
campaign funds, according to The New York Times. Nearly $1 million came from 15
law firms that handle property tax appeals.
With blatant conflicts of interest such as these, there’s little wonder the Cook
County assessor’s office has earned a reputation for dubious ethical practices.
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