2 guilty of taking bribes to fix property assessments

A federal jury today convicted two half-brothers on federal fraud charges for taking bribes to fix property tax assessments in Cook County.

Thomas Hawkins, 49, and John Racasi, 52, worked as analysts for the Board of Review when they were secretly recorded taking the bribes from a corrupt Chicago police officer who was working undercover with the FBI.

A federal jury convicted two half brothers on federal charges Monday for taking bribes to fix property tax assessments in Cook County.

Thomas Hawkins, 49, and John Racasi, 52, worked as analysts for the Board of Review when they were secretly recorded taking $1,500 in cash bribes from a corrupt Chicago police officer who was working undercover with the FBI.

The jury deliberated about 3 ½ hours before convicting both on four counts each of conspiracy, bribery and mail fraud. U.S. District Judge John Tharp set sentencing for Feb. 25.

The two had no comment as they left the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. Both remain free on bond.

The weeklong trial provided a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the Board of Review, the obscure but powerful public agency that is supposed to give fair appraisals to businesses and residents who want to appeal 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, has not been 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 the conversations played at trial. Hawkins also talked of sharing "lettuce" with Berrios — part of their crude code for bribe money, prosecutors said.

"Now I gotta go through the system, but I go straight to Berrios and get a signature," Hawkins said. "You know with the lettuce, say here you go, man. Sign this."

Prosecutors said Hawkins and Racasi pocketed the $1,500 payoff in 2008 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.

As the three sat in a car outside a restaurant, Haleem twice counted out the money — 15 hundred-dollar bills — aloud moments before handing the cash to Racasi, according to court records.

The half brothers 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.

According to court records, Hawkins told FBI agents after his arrest that he had helped reduce assessments for "various individuals" at least 100 times in his eight years on the job, typically for a $50 to $100 fee. He also suggested that the big money to be made was by employees who worked on commercial property tax assessments, not the smaller residential ones in which he was involved.

Critics of the board have often alleged the tax-appeal process allows politically connected attorneys to routinely make campaign donations to board members and then win big assessment reductions for their commercial and corporate clients, saving them tens of thousands of dollars in taxes and redistributing the burden to other taxpayers.

Attorneys for Hawkins and Racasi sought to cast doubt during the trial on Haleem, who was convicted of selling guns to felons and accepting bribes from tow truck drivers, all while a cop. He still faces sentencing but to a reduced sentence because of his extensive undercover work.

Haleem's cooperation also led to charges against Dean Nichols, who was a campaign treasurer for former state Sen. Rickey Hendon, two Cook County corrections officers and four others who allegedly paid kickbacks to secure thousands of dollars in federal grants. Nichols and co-defendant Anthony Johnson pleaded guilty Monday to their roles in the scheme.

jmeisner@tribune.com