Lawmakers Gone Wild - Chicago magazine - January 2013 - Chicago
Push open the heavy door to Mart Anthony’s Italian Restaurant and Steakhouse, on the corner of Hubbard and Racine in the West Loop, and you feel you’ve stepped back in time. This is the kind of cozy place where the tablecloths are white linen, the walls are wood paneled, and, according to the restaurant’s website, the customers “are well-fed and have their cocktail of choice at hand.”
On any given week, chances are good that one of those customers—perhaps washing down the $32 steak Vesuvio with a $75 Napa cabernet—will be Joe Berrios. In the first nine months of 2012, Berrios ate lunch or dinner at Mart Anthony’s 58 times, ringing up a tab of $8,747. How do we know this? Because Berrios—who is not only the Cook County assessor (salary: $125,000) but also the county’s Democratic Party chairman and the committeeman for the 31st Ward on the Northwest Side—used political campaign funds to pay the bills.
Those Mart Anthony’s meals were actually “meetings,” according to his quarterly mandatory disclosure filings with the State of Illinois. Turns out Berrios, 60, has held “meetings” at lots of restaurants since the beginning of 2007: 989 of them, totaling $186,080. That’s right: On average, the veteran pol dined out on the campaign dime at least every other workday at $188 a pop.
Given that Berrios’s full-time campaign office is just two blocks from the County Building, where he works, it’s puzzling that he must hold so many meetings at gourmet restaurants. Equally puzzling is that not a single meal he charged to his ward committeeman fund—the account that’s supposed to be used for ward-related politics—was eaten inside his ward.
(Through a spokesperson, Berrios—who recently told reporters that the county’s ethics rules barring nepotism in hiring don’t apply to him—declined to be interviewed for this article. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request seeking details of who attended the meetings and what they were about, Berrios’s office first claimed that he doesn’t keep a calendar. It later sent one xeroxed page of one month in a datebook with four appointments penciled in.)
Using campaign funds to live high on the hog is a time-honored tradition among certain Illinois politicians. How else are they supposed to afford frequent fine dining and other luxuries on a public servant’s salary?
It’s also supposed to be verboten.
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