Berrios v. Cook Cnty. Bd. of Commissioners, 1-18-0654

CourtUnited States Appellate Court of Illinois
Citation435 Ill.Dec. 81,2018 IL App (1st) 180654,138 N.E.3d 695
Docket NumberNo. 1-18-0654,1-18-0654
Parties Joseph BERRIOS, in His Official Capacity as Assessor of Cook County, Illinois; and John K. Norris, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. The COOK COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS and The Cook County Board of Ethics, Defendants-Appellees.
Decision Date21 September 2018

2018 IL App (1st) 180654
138 N.E.3d 695
435 Ill.Dec.

Joseph BERRIOS, in His Official Capacity as Assessor of Cook County, Illinois; and John K. Norris, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
The COOK COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS and The Cook County Board of Ethics, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 1-18-0654

Appellate Court of Illinois, First District, SIXTH DIVISION.

September 21, 2018

Forde Law Offices LLP (Kevin M. Forde and Ellen M. Carey, of counsel), and James P. Nally, P.C. (James P. Nally, of counsel), both of Chicago, for appellants.

Kimberly M. Foxx, State’s Attorney, of Chicago (Kent S. Ray, Paul A. Castiglione, and Paul L. Fangman, Assistant State’s Attorneys, of counsel), for appellees.

PRESIDING JUSTICE DELORT delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

435 Ill.Dec. 85

¶ 1 On January 26, 2018, Joseph Berrios, the Assessor of Cook County, and John K. Norris, an attorney who practices real estate taxation law before the assessor's office, filed a two-count complaint against the Cook County Board of Commissioners and Cook County Board of Ethics (collectively, the "Cook County defendants") for injunctive and declaratory relief. Berrios and Norris challenge the application and validity of various provisions of the Cook County Ethics Ordinance. The circuit court rejected these challenges and granted summary judgment to the Cook County defendants. We affirm.


¶ 3 In 1993, the Cook County Board of Commissioners (county board) adopted the original version of the Cook County Ethics Ordinance (Ethics Ordinance). Cook County Code of Ordinances §§ 2-560-2-642 (approved Aug. 3, 1993). The Ethics Ordinance establishes rules of conduct for county officials and employees. It creates a Cook County Board of Ethics (Ethics Board) and empowers it to enforce the Ethics Ordinance. The Ethics Ordinance has long imposed restrictions on campaign donations to county officials from lobbyists and persons who either contract with the county or seek to do business with the county. On October 5, 2016, the county board amended the Ethics Ordinance by expanding these restrictions to also include persons seeking "official action from the County." The plaintiffs' complaint challenges the following three provisions of the Ethics Ordinance, as amended in 2016.

¶ 4 Section 2-585(b) of the Ethics Ordinance provides as follows:

"(b) No person who does business with the County [ (Cook County) ] or who has done business with the County within the preceding four years; or is seeking to do business with the County; or is a person required to register as a lobbyist with the County; or who has sought official action by the County within the preceding four years, or is an officer, director or partner of a firm, contracted by the County to act as financial counsel, bond counsel, underwriter's counsel, legal counsel, or financial manager for the issuance of any bond and
138 N.E.3d 700
435 Ill.Dec. 86
directly working on said bond transaction; or firm, officers, directors or partners, contracted by the County to provide financial audits of County finances and directly working on said contract shall make contributions in an aggregate amount exceeding $750.00:

(1) To any candidate for County office or elected County official during a single candidacy; or

(2) To any elected official of the government of the County during any nonelection year of his or her term.

(3) To any local, state, or federal political committee that is established in support of, a specific candidate for County office or an elected County official. The combined effect of these provisions is intended to permit total contribution up to, but not exceeding, $1,500.00 in a year in which a candidacy occurs. A year, for purposes of this Section, is from January 1 to December 31 of each year." Cook County Code of Ordinances § 2-585(b) (approved Oct. 5, 2016).

¶ 5 Section 2-585(f) of the Ethics Ordinance states as follows:

"(f) Any candidate for any County office or any current elected official in Cook County government shall return contributions found in excess of the limitations set forth in this Section within 30 days of notification from the Board of Ethics. Failure to return contributions within 30 days shall be a violation of this Section and subject to fines under Section 2-602." Cook County Code of Ordinances § 2-585(f) (approved Oct. 5, 2016).

¶ 6 Section 2-602(d) of the Ethics Ordinance provides:

"(d) The Board [of Ethics] may impose a fine of up to $1,000.00 per offense on any person, including officials or candidates, found by the Board to have knowingly violated any provision of this article other than Section 2-574 or 2-583, to have knowingly furnished false or misleading information to the Board or to have failed to cooperate with an investigation under this article." Cook County Code of Ordinances § 2-602(d) (approved Oct. 5, 2016).

Unless context dictates otherwise, we will refer to these three provisions as the "Ethics Ordinance," even though the full text of the Ethics Ordinance is much longer.

¶ 7 Normally, candidates for public office in Illinois may not accept contributions of more than $5600 from a single individual source during an election cycle. 10 ILCS 5/9-8.5(b), (g) (West 2016); Ill. State Bd. of Elections, Contribution Limits Per Election Cycle (Jan 1, 2017), However, candidates may donate unlimited amounts to their own campaign funds, as may their immediate family members. 10 ILCS 5/9-8.5(h) (West 2016). Under section 9-8.5(h), when a candidate for county office (or family member) donates $100,000 or more to his own campaign fund, the contribution limits in section 9-8.5(b) no longer apply. This event is known colloquially as a self-funding candidate "lifting the caps."

¶ 8 The following recitation of facts is taken from the pleadings and exhibits of record. Berrios ran for re-election in the March 2018 General Primary Election1 against a self-funding candidate who donated "more than $800,000 to his [own] campaign committee since May 2017." Because

138 N.E.3d 701
435 Ill.Dec. 87

of the aggregate effect of the contribution limits in both the Ethics Ordinance and the Election Code ( 10 ILCS 5/1-1 et seq. (West 2016) ), Berrios's committees could only receive contributions of $750 per election cycle or non-election year from individuals seeking "official action" from Cook County, even though the Election Code's caps were lifted because a self-funding candidate was running against him. Despite the Ethics Ordinance's restrictions, Berrios's opponent was able to donate unlimited sums to his own campaign. Berrios was not prohibited from doing so himself, but he did not do so.

¶ 9 As a matter of course of regular business, the Ethics Board compared the contributions that Berrios's committees received and compared them to public records showing that attorneys and law firms sought property tax reductions from the assessor's office. This analysis revealed that some of those attorneys and law firms contributed more than $750 to one or more campaign committees related to Berrios. On July 21, 2017, the Executive Director of the Ethics Board sent "Notice[s] of Excess Contributions" to Berrios in his dual roles as chair of his own campaign committee (the Berrios committee) and as Committeeman of the 31st Ward Democratic Organization (the 31st ward committee). The Ethics Board issued these notices pursuant to the Ethics Ordinance's safe harbor provision, section 2-585(f), which gives a candidate the opportunity to avoid being fined for accepting an excess contribution if the candidate simply returns the excess portion within 30 days of being notified by the Ethics Board. The notices stated that the committees had reported receiving particular donations in excess of $750 from attorneys or law firms that represented taxpayers before the assessor's office and demanded that the excess portions of the contributions be returned. Berrios and his committees declined to do so, taking the position that (1) the contributions complied with the Election Code and (2) the contributors were not seeking "official action by the County" as defined in the Ethics Ordinance. In an affidavit attached to plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment, Berrios characterized his rationale for doing so as follows: "[T]hey were operating under a good faith basis that State election law applied, * * * the contributions at issue comply with the Election Code, and * * * section 2-585(b) of the ordinance did not apply to the contributions at issue." Until the 2018 election cycle, Berrios had returned excess contributions that violated the Ethics Ordinance.

¶ 10 Because the committees did not return the excess contributions before the specified deadline, the Ethics Board sent "Notice[s] of Determination" to Berrios and his committees on January 8, 2018, stating that 41 specified attorneys and law firms who sought "official action" from the assessor made contributions in excess of $750 and thus violated the Ethics Ordinance. The determination notices further stated that the Ethics Board imposed a $1000 fine for each of the 41 violations...

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1 cases
  • Fazekas v. City of DeKalb
    • United States
    • United States Appellate Court of Illinois
    • September 29, 2021
    ...the same rules governing the construction of statutes. Berrios v. Cook County Board of Commissioners , 2018 IL App (1st) 180654, ¶ 25, 435 Ill.Dec. 81, 138 N.E.3d 695. Statutes are presumed constitutional. Berrios , 2018 IL App (1st) 180654, ¶ 25, 435 Ill.Dec. 81, 138 N.E.3d 695. The party ......

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