The issue of ethics is once again taking a central role in the race for Cook County assessor as first-term incumbent Fritz Kaegi is blasting his main opponent Kari Steele over her husband’s work as a lobbyist for an international development company that could benefit from decisions made by the assessor’s office.

Ethics for years has been a key campaign issue in races for county assessor, an office responsible for accurately and fairly assessing the value of the county’s 1.8 million properties. As an outsider four years ago, Kaegi defeated Assessor Joseph Berrios, who also was head of the Cook County Democratic Party, in part by pointing to Berrios’ history of taking campaign contributions from property tax appeal attorneys and noting Berrios hired relatives and friends in the office.

Today, Kaegi is the county Democratic Party-backed candidate and is attacking Steele and her husband, Mazonne “Maze” Jackson, saying Jackson’s work as a lobbyist for a real estate firm could compromise her role as assessor. Steele is now president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation Board of Greater Chicago.

Steele has countered that Kaegi has not lived up to his promises that he’d reform the assessor’s office by making property assessments more equitable and transparent, an issue bolstered by “The Tax Divide,” a Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois series that found assessments under Berrios placed an outsize portion of the property tax burden on the poor.

The issue of Kaegi raising concerns about Steele came to a head following Steele’s answers during a Crain’s Chicago Business podcast in which she declined to promise that Jackson would stop lobbying on behalf of real estate developers were she to assume the office. City and county lobbying records, as well as a Better Government Association story, have detailed that Jackson’s firm, The Intelligence Group, has one lobbying client, real estate company Onni Group.

“Commissioner Steele’s unwillingness to say that she will ensure her spouse eliminates his conflicts of interest related to his lobbying is troubling,” said Kaegi campaign spokeswoman Alicia Webb. “Cook County residents deserve to know whether Mr. Jackson will continue lobbying for Onni Group and other real estate developers who may seek assessments before the office she seeks to control.”

In recent interviews with the Tribune, both Steele and Jackson said Jackson has not lobbied the assessor’s office and vowed he would not if Steele wins.

“I can’t state that enough,” Steele said. “As you see, I just keep saying he doesn’t lobby the assessor’s office or seek official action.”

She added the idea that Jackson’s lobbying could pose an ethical issue for her seeking office was dredged up by Kaegi’s campaign to “deflect that his responsibilities aren’t being executed.” Jackson also said the criticism was “crossing the line.”

“Quite frankly, in some cases, it’s offensive … the fact that she could not be able to make decisions as a woman without me being of some level of influence,” he said.

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But Reform for Illinois Executive Director Alisa Kaplan said the concern is valid, and Steele’s measures might be insufficient should Jackson continue lobbying for Onni Group and other developers. That’s because even the appearance of partiality could be problematic, Kaplan said.

“When it comes to corruption or bias, appearance can be as damaging to the public’s trust as reality,” Kaplan said. “Fairly or not, the public usually sees elected officials and their spouses as a unit — as having the same financial interests. That could make it hard for Commissioner Steele to draw a line between her work and her husband’s.”

The issue of elected officials whose spouses work as lobbyists has also become an issue in the race for Illinois secretary of state, where City Clerk Anna Valencia has faced questions about whether her husband’s lobbying activities have interfered with her role in public office.

When asked whether it was warranted to expect her husband to stop lobbying for real estate firms, Steele said, “I wouldn’t say it’s unfair for anyone to have that thought, but I would eliminate any conflict of interest or appearance of conflict of interest” by signing an executive order barring any family member of her staffers from lobbying or seeking official action from the office.

Kaegi’s administration implemented a similar order that bars assessor’s office employees from participating in decisions that could benefit them, a relative or a private organization in which they have interest.

Steele also said she would install a full-time ethics officer and recuse herself from decisions involving Jackson’s clients, though she was less specific on how other situations, such as assessments for property owners who work for Jackson’s clients, should be handled.

“I will look into that,” Steele said, “but if there was any appearance of conflict of interest, I will recuse myself.”

Kaegi’s campaign said the assessor already employs an ethics official, though that person also serves as the office’s legal director — “as is common in government agencies,” assessor’s office spokeswoman Angelina Romero said.

Though Onni Group could benefit from decisions made by the assessor’s office, Jackson said the firm’s interests would not overlap with the mission of the assessor’s office.

“My client Onni is my only real estate client, and they don’t ask for grants or set-asides, or any specific legislative action,” Jackson said. “My relationship with Onni does not deal in the relationship of taxes. … Quite frankly, that is an area that I don’t really understand very much.”

In a statement, Onni Group’s chief of staff, Duncan Wlodarczak, said “we are proud of what we have been able to accomplish in Chicago with Maze’s assistance. That stated, Maze’s scope of work with Onni does not, has never, and will not involve the assessor’s office.”

While Jackson said he would not lobby the assessor’s office, he declined to make a similar pledge for lobbying the Cook County Board, the Chicago City Council or the Illinois General Assembly, all of which can pass legislation related to property taxes.

“I would just tell you that again, if it is deemed by the ethics officer that it would be a conflict, I would without question recuse myself from it,” Jackson said.

Jackson also accused Kaegi of being hypocritical. He said four years ago he endorsed Kaegi when he ran for assessor and even helped host a fundraiser in Kaegi’s efforts to defeat Berrios. Jackson even shared a post on social media of a flyer for the fundraiser and noted that at the time of the event — October 16, 2018 — he was lobbying for Onni.

“It’s important that we recognize that while he is pointing the finger, he should be looking back at himself because during that same exact time, I was raising funds for him and representing the same company, and he didn’t find a conflict then,” Jackson said.

ayin@chicagotribune.com



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