A federal judge Wednesday sentenced two half-brothers to prison for taking bribes to fix property tax assessments in Cook County, calling low-level public corruption such as theirs a scourge that damages democratic society.

U.S. District Judge John Tharp said in sentencing Thomas Hawkins to 2 years in prison and John Racasi to 1 ½ years behind bars.

“People have to understand that if you sell your office” there will be consequences, the judge said in rejecting calls for probation by defense lawyers.

The prison terms, however, fell below the approximately 3- to 4-year sentences called for under federal guidelines that prosecutors had sought.

Hawkins, 50, and Racasi, 53, worked as analysts for the county Board of Review when they were secretly recorded taking $1,500 in cash bribes from a corrupt Chicago police officer who was working undercover for the FBI. A federal jury in October convicted each of them on counts of conspiracy, bribery and mail fraud.

The trial provided a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the Board of Review, the obscure but powerful public agency that decides appeals by businesses and residents on their property taxes but has long been criticized as rife with insider dealing and conflicts of interest.

Jurors listened to hours of undercover recordings made by the corrupt cop, Ali Haleem, in which Hawkins and Racasi talked about widespread corruption among analysts for the board's three commissioners. In the recorded conversations in 2008 and 2009, the two implied that Joseph Berrios, then the leader of the board, was in on the fraud. Berrios, who is the chairman of the Cook County Democratic

Party and currently serves as the county assessor, was not charged with any wrongdoing.

In one conversation recorded Sept. 11, 2008, Hawkins told Haleem he is “bringin' in Joe” on a deal so they could bypass the usual red tape, according to transcripts of recordings played at trial. Hawkins also talked of sharing “lettuce” with Berrios -- part of their crude code for bribe money, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said Hawkins and Racasi pocketed the $1,500 payoff from Haleem after agreeing to help reduce property taxes on his two residences in Chicago and suburban Burbank as well as another individual's condominium in Tinley Park by more than a combined $10,000.

They also worked with Haleem in a scheme to reduce the assessments for an 11-unit Logan Square condo building, the residence of Haleem's former partner, the records show. But prosecutors never alleged any money changed hands on that deal.

Haleem's cooperation also led to charges against Dean Nichols, who was a campaign treasurer for former state Sen. Rickey Hendon, as well as two Cook County corrections officers and four others who allegedly paid kickbacks to secure thousands of dollars in federal grants.

Both Hawkins and Racasi apologized Wednesday in court to their families and county taxpayers for their actions.

“I knew better, your honor, and I chose to do wrong,” said Racasi, a burly ex-Marine who served in Afghanistan.

Hawkins, also a former Hendon aide who for years has battled heroin addiction, said he was “seeking help and trying to get back on the right path.”

“I made a stupid mistake, and I’m embarrassed by it,” Hawkins said.

The two were ordered to report to prison in June.

jmeisner@tribune.com