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Former Cook County Board of Review employee sentenced to 3 months in prison for taking bribes to fix tax appeals – Chicago Tribune

A former employee of the Cook County Board of Review was sentenced to three months in prison and at least one year of probation Tuesday for taking bribes to fix tax appeals on more than two dozen properties.

Danilo Barjaktarevic, who was a deputy at the board responsible for helping property owners appeal their real estate tax valuations, pleaded guilty in September to one count of bribery. Federal prosecutors had asked for up to 2½ years in prison, while Barjaktarevic’s lawyers were seeking probation.

“Probation would send the wrong message,” Assistant US Attorney Thomas Peabody told the judge in the hearing at the Dirksen US Courthouse. “This was about greed. This was about wanting more money. He had a salary, but he wanted more.”

Barjaktarevic’s attorney emphasized the former county employee had quickly acknowledged his actions.

“The minute that he got caught, he admitted to what he did,” said Barjaktarevic’s lawyer, Matthew McQuaid, asking the judge to consider probation or a non-prison sentence. “He has consistently cooperated … He can, and will, live a law-abiding life for the rest of his life.”

Prior to sentencing, Barjaktarevic told the court: “I am ashamed of myself … I should have known better.”

US District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman told Barjaktarevic that “making a mistake doesn’t, in and of itself, mean you’re a bad person. It just means you did something wrong.”

However, the judge noted the offense was serious and not victimless. “When you violate the law as you did, it brings everything into question,” she said.

During the year of probation, Barjaktarevic will have to complete 100 hours of community service with the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Other special conditions require Barjaktarevic to repay the $21,000 he received as part of the first bribe.

Unbeknownst to Barjaktarevic, an individual named in documents only as “CS-1″ was a confidential source operating at the direction of the FBI, according to the plea. Barjaktarevic told the source he would accept $2,000 to lower assessments for each commercial property, while he would charge $1,000 for each residential property, for a total cost to CS-1 of $43,000, the legal document states. Half was due upfront, which the plea said was paid around Jan. 7, 2021.

Barjaktarevic updated CS-1 on the appeals process during that first cash drop in a suburban parking lot and then again via email in May 2021, detailing “whether and the extent to which a property’s assessment had been lowered,” according to the agreement.

The two met again in a parking lot that July, when Barjaktarevic received the second payment of $22,000, authorities said in the agreement.

The pleas suggests no other Board of Review employees were involved. “Barjaktarevic falsely told CS-1 that other employees at the CCBOR would assist,” the plea reads.

The Sun-Times first reported the FBI was investigating an unnamed employee at the county’s Board of Review last July, citing a 45-page affidavit that was temporarily unsealed. The affidavit quoted the employee who claimed to be a “middle guy” splitting the bribes with others in the office, the Sun-Times reported.

Following the report, the Board of Review put that employee on paid leave, the Sun-Times reported, and pledged to independently investigate the incident. The Board of Review signed an emergency contract with the law firm Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila worth $110,000 to conduct an internal investigation of the incident.

That contract was set to expire in early March, but was extended — at a cost of $40,000 — and scheduled again to conclude on Sep. 6. Among their responsibilities, according to the contract, was to interview board of review employees about the allegations and the board’s security processes, review documents, draft a presentation and a comprehensive written report outlining the findings of the investigation, and represent the board in communications with federal authorities relating to the allegations.

That report has not yet been publicly released.

“The Board of Review is glad that justice was served today and that Mr. Barjaktarevic will repay the money he illegally obtained. We are thankful the investigation showed what we’ve known all along: this was a single corrupt employee who tried to tarnish the good work done by our hard working staff by falsely implying a larger scheme,” Board of Review spokesman William O’Shields said in a statement.

It was not the first ethics stumble to crop up at the board in recent years. Commissioner Tammy Wendt, who was defeated in the June primary, was found in violation of ethics rules for hiring her first cousin as a top staffer. He was eventually fired. Board members have also been dinged by ethics officials for taking excess campaign donations from people seeking assessment reductions.

And the county’s watchdog has also chastised board members for repeatedly recruiting employees based on their personal and political connections, and pressured employees into doing political work.

This was also not the first time Barjaktarevic had accepted bribes, according to the government’s sentencing memo. He had admitted that he once accepted $1,500 in cash from a taxpayer for help with property taxes. A search of the Barjaktarevic’s cellphone also revealed other similar instances, such as a $1,000 payment from a taxpayer in January 2021 and a $1,500 putative payment from another taxpayer in the spring of 2021.

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