October 23, 2019


Civility is nice. Being nice is nice, right? It is said that if you can't say something nice about somebody then you should not say anything.

That's not fun. Why even bother writing this column if the niceties are obligatory? And why bother reading it if all people get is a pat on the back? Am I right?

So here's some of the mudslinging that I have heard.

Developing in the 2020 Democratic primary for Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court there is a whole lot of nastiness brewing. "There is an appearance of impropriety," said Jacob Meister, a lawyer running for the clerk's job. "There is a circle of corruption." Meister is not referring to the 20-year tenure of Dorothy Brown, who is retiring. He is instead attacking one of his three opponents, Board of Review commissioner Mike Cabonargi, who is the slated Democratic candidate to replace Brown. Party committeemen are passing nominating petitions with him and Kim Foxx for state's attorney. A minimum of 7,379 valid signatures is required, which means submissions of about 20,000 signatures to avoid a challenge area "really required."

Also passing petitions for the March 17 primary for clerk are state Senator Iris Martinez (D-20) from the Albany Park-Logan Square area, who was elected to her seat in 2002, and former county commissioner Richard Boykin of Oak Park, who was an outspoken foe of Toni Preckwinkle's soda tax and got beat in the 2018 primary in his West Side district. Boykin was chief-of-staff to Congressman Danny Davis (D-7) for 10 years, interned with Bobby Rush and Carol Moseley Braun, and is now a partner in a prestigious Loop law firm.

Meister, who ran for the post in 2016 and received 20 percent, charges that his main opponent Cabonargi has violated the Cook County ethics ordinance on multiple occasions and has created a "backdoor entity" to avoid donation caps, and has helped a his spouse generate income through ties to Sterling Bay, Ed Burke, Lincoln Yards and Hibernian Advisors by helping to reduce property taxes at the Board of Review, where he is one of the three commissioners. "It's more pay-to-play," Meister said. "He's no reformer."

Cabonargi, a prosecutor with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, was plucked from obscurity in February of 2011 by the county's chief judge, Tim Evans, to replace Joe Berrios, who had been elected assessor after 22 years on the Board of Review, the entity to which commercial and residential property owners can appeal their tax bill's assessed valuation, which is set annually by the assessor. A reduction in assessed valuation, presumably for a valid reason, means a reduction in total taxes paid.

Why was Cabonargi chosen for the $100,000-a year job? Several others, including Alderman Gene Schulter (47th), county commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno (D-7), and restaurant owner Sam Toia wanted the job. But Cabonargi's wife, Erin Lavin Cabonargi, was then head of the city's Public Building Commission, and was then-Mayor Rich Daley's chief advisor on TIF matters, and TIF's give developers significant property tax reductions in certain geographic areas for a long time.

There was then and now somewhere around $3 billion in TIF accounts, which are to be used for infrastructure improvements. When Rahm Emanuel replaced Daley, there was some shuffling around and Cabonargi's wife went to Sterling Bay, the developer who was shopping the Lincoln Yards project, as director of construction. Sterling Bay's attorney for property tax appeals before the assessor and the Board of Review was and still is Alderman Burke's law firm. She has since founded Hibernian Advisors, a consultant on TIF matters.

The TIF funds' balance currently exceeds $3 billion, and the city council in the waning days of the Emanuel administration approved an allocation of $1.3 billion for the Lincoln Yards project. Until Mayor Lori Lightfoot's election, Burke's finance committee controlled TIF distributions.

It will be recalled that Berrios, while assessor, filed a lawsuit challenging a provision in the Cook County ethics ordinance that capped donations at an aggregate of $750 over a 4-year period to the assessor or any commissioner from any lawyer, law firm, or law firm employee that engaged in tax-reduction activities. In an opinion dated Sept. 21, 2018, the Appellate Court upheld a lower court finding that any donation over $750 constituted an illegal "quid pro quo" by the donor, deemed "somebody who does business with the county," and the officeholder - in effect, a gratuity or payoff for services rendered. Berrios had been cited for 41 violations, was fined $41,000, and ordered to return to donors all contributions in excess of $750. On Aug. 9 of this year the Cook County Inspector General issued a finding that there "has been a history of unethical conduct" at both the Board of Review and assessor's office in accepting contributions, and that either a recusal or a refusal to accept donations was and is proper.

As a result Cabonargi, who was not part of the lawsuit, returned in 2018 the sum of $45,500 to 27 donors whose contributions exceeded the $750 cap, and directed them to re-donate the refund to the "Fund for 9th District Democrats," which Cabonargi created because he is the elected Democratic central committeeman from Rogers Park/Evanston/ North Shore 9th Congressional District. According to Meister, $30,700 of those refunds was re-donated by those donors to the "9th District Democrats."

"That's just totally deceitful," said Meister.

According to Meister, Cabonargi has generated $1,426,072 in campaign donations since 2011, of which Meister said $1,014,655, or 71.5 percent, came from lawyers who practice before the Board of Review, law firms or law firm employees.

I asked Cabonargi's campaign whether Meister's allegations had any validity. Their response was equivocal with a spokeswoman saying that Cabonargi's "professional career has been built around public service" and that Meister's "laundry list of false claims can't distract from the work he has done for Cook County families" and that he will continue to focus on his campaign "to reform an office (Clerk of Court) stuck in yesterday, bring it into today, and get it ready for tomorrow."

Meister in 2016 called the office a "cesspool of incompetence and mismanagement."

The clerk's job is essentially document management and retrieval. It's all about paper, and paperlessness, which is a formidable task when 30 million paper documents are filed annually, with 25,000 new cases filed per month, or 300,000 per year, and supplemental multitudinous answers and motions. These need to be placed in paper files, and original filings and orders scanned on-line. There are 50 million documents warehoused. There are 500 courtrooms, not only in the Daley Center but in the five suburban municipal districts and satellite courthouses, with one clerk in each courtroom, and two clerks in the Law, Divorce, County and criminal divisions. Every paper file for every defendant, including traffic tickets, must be in the courtroom on the day of hearing. There are about 2,000 employees to accomplish this task, with a budget of $130 million. But an ongoing political snit between Preckwinkle, who is backing Cabonargi, and Brown, has resulted in about 600 of those jobholders being transferred to the Office of Chief Judge. It is unclear who works for whom.

The state Supreme Court mandated that the Clerk adopt the PACER system, adopt an electronic case filing (ECF) system by Jan. 1, 2018, similar to that of the federal courts, and in DuPage, Will, McHenry and Lake counties. Filings are now on-line, but not motions and other pleadings.

The outlook: Turnout was 950,421 in 2008, and 447,446 in 2000, when Brown beat Pat Levar. Cabonargi has a whole lot of perceived baggage. In a low turnout, Cabonargi wins. In a high turnout, over 800,000, Meister wins. And if both busily bash each other, then Martinez wins. Maybe that's what she's waiting for.

Send an e-mail to russ@russstewart.com or visit his Web site at www.russstewart.com.