CHICAGO (CBS) — In his first week in office, Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios already was taking heat from critics after putting his son and his sister on the public payroll at his office.
Berrios was sworn in as the assessor on Monday, after a testy election battle against independent candidate Forrest Claypool, who repeatedly accused Berrios of nepotism and old school political patronage.
On Wednesday, Berrios hired his son Joseph “Joey” Berrios, and his sister, Carmen Berrios Cruz, to work for him in the Assessor’s office. They also worked for him when he served previously on the Cook County Board of Tax Review.
“They’ve got experience, and I’m hiring people with experience,’’ Berrios told the Chicago Sun-Times Wednesday.
Carmen Berrios Cruz is making $86,000 a year as director of taxpayer services. Joey Berrios is making $48,000 a year as a residential property analyst.
Berrios’ spokeswoman, Kelley Quinn, said, “This isn’t new. He expects more out of these two employees than he expects out of anyone.”
It’s not new because both worked for Berrios at the Board of Review, where they earned the same salaries they make in their new jobs.
“They are both very well-versed in the property tax system here in Cook County,” Quinn said. “If it gives that appearance (of impropriety) I think that you also have to understand that they’re more than qualified to do these positions and help us when we don’t want to miss a beat for the property owners here in Cook County.”
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle – who was elected in November on promises to reform county government and has already started getting rid of friends and family members hired by her predecessor, Todd Stroger – called Berrios a friend and Democratic Party loyalist.
But she doesn’t like what Berrios is doing at his office.
“I never hired any family members and I think it’s inappropriate and I had a conversation with Joe about it this morning,” Preckwinkle said.
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Berrios’ decision to hire relatives at his office also drew sharp criticism from Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
Canary said that she was “stunned” not only by the timing of it, but also because it smacks of old Democratic Party Machine politics.
“I think I was stunned less that he did it – because this is sort of Joe Berrios-style politics – but I was stunned that it was just done immediately on the heels of the inauguration,” Canary said.
Berrios is not only the County Assessor, he’s also head of the Cook County Democratic Party and the 31st Ward Committeeman.
His daughter Maria Antonia Berrios is a state representative. And before bringing on his son and sister, Berrios’ daughter already was working at the assessor’s office.
Vanessa Berrios has worked in the Assessor’s office for more than a decade, having been hired by former assessor Jim Houlihan. She is an analyst making $58,000 a year.
“It does send out a very loud and clear signal that Cook County ain’t ready for reform,” Canary said. “Obviously, he doesn’t give a damn, does he? … Yes, he won the election, but it’s been abundantly clear that the voters in Cook County are getting wary of this nepotism.’’