Illinois voters have been hearing accusations for months now that billionaire Democratic candidate for governor J.B. Pritzker improperly pocketed tax breaks by yanking the toilets out of one of his Gold Coast mansions and declaring it uninhabitable. And they’ve been hearing Pritzker’s explanations. He said he wasn’t aware the toilets were inoperable. He said he was one of thousands of taxpayers who properly sought a property reassessment.
Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard disagrees. In a newly disclosed report dated Sept. 28, Blanchard says those tax breaks — $330,000 worth — resulted from an improper “scheme to defraud” Pritzker’s fellow taxpayers.
Not an accident.
Not an oversight.
Not something to be shrugged off.
Again: A “scheme to defraud.”
Here’s how it allegedly worked, gleaned from a subpoenaed email between the project manager for contractor Bulley & Andrews and a vice president for F.J. Kerrigan Plumbing about the Pritzker mansion under renovation. The Oct. 5, 2015, email discusses the candidate’s wife, M.K. Pritzker. “MK is now getting back into the task of cleaning up (the mansion). She is going to have the house re-assessed as an uninhabitable structure,” according to the email from the project manager. “To do this, she would like to have us pull all toilets and cap all toilet lines in the house. Then after the assessment, she would like us to put the 1st Floor toilet back in and have this as the one functioning bathroom in the place (she will then be finishing out the front room for JB’s hangout/meeting area).”
Days later, M.K. Pritzker’s brother, Thomas Muenster, sought retroactive tax breaks from 2012 through 2014, the report says. Affidavits from Muenster and M.K. Pritzker’s personal assistant, Christine Lovely, however, said the mansion was “vacant and uninhabitable” from January 2012 to mid-October 2015. But Blanchard notes in the report that the toilets were actually removed just 10 days before the affidavits were sworn on Oct. 15, 2015.
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As a result of what Blanchard called “false representations” in the affidavits to Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios’ office, the assessed value of the 6,378-square-foot mansion was cut from $6.3 million to about $1.1 million.
What should happen now? Blanchard recommended that the assessor’s office try to recover the money. He also suggested several improvements for the office, including a “veracity check” on affidavits, since the inspector Berrios’ office dispatched to look at the mansion said he could not get inside to verify the conditions sworn to in the affidavits.
Surely the people of Illinois will be watching to see whether state or county law enforcement authorities take interest in the phrase “scheme to defraud.”
For his part, Pritzker told reporters on Monday that “we followed the rules”; on Tuesday his campaign said he’ll pay the $330,000. He suggested the timing of the leak of Blanchard’s report was a political hit.
The timing of the disclosure, however, isn’t the issue here. It’s the devastating substance. By echoing his months of deflections, Pritzker has presented state and county officials and Illinois voters with a compelling question: Did the Pritzkers, in fact, “follow the rules”? Or did the Pritzkers, as the inspector general alleges, mount a “scheme to defraud”?
Here’s how it would have played out, if not for Blanchard’s report: Pritzker would have saved $330,000. Which is chump change to him, we imagine, but not to most other property taxpayers in the county. And guess who’d have to make up that $330,000? That’s right: every other taxpayer in Cook County. That’s how the system works. If your neighbor pays less, you and everyone else pay more.
Even if your neighbor is a billionaire.
-- Chicago Tribune