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BGA: Cook County Treasurer Received Improper Property Tax Exemptions

CHICAGO (CBS) -- She's the Cook County Treasurer - the woman responsible for collecting property taxes, but now the Better Government Association has found the county did not collect thousands of dollars it should have gotten from Maria Pappas and her husband years ago.

As CBS 2's Pam Zekman reports, it's the latest example of public officials claiming too many home owner's exemptions.

While she was a Cook County Commissioner in the 1990s, Maria Pappas owned two Gold Coast condominiums in the Hancock Building, and her husband owned a home in Wilmette. All three properties had with homeowner's exemptions on their property taxes.

"You can only get a homeowner's exemption on your primary residence," said BGA investigator Patrick Rehkamp, "You're only allowed one; not two, not three."

But an analysis by the Cook County Assessor's office showed that, between 1991 and 1999, Pappas and her husband had three exemptions in place for six years and two exemptions in place for three years.

The result was $5,660 in unjustified tax savings.

"She should have known better," said Rehkamp. "And it was only after we inquired about this that she paid the money back."

Pappas has declined to talk on camera with CBS 2 since her defiant interview last year with Zekman and the BGA about her use of some employees assigned to the treasurer's office.

A $94,000 a year "project leader" ran personal errands for her and chauffeured her around, doubling as a bodyguard, she said.

Pappas' cleaning lady at her home was on the county payroll as a $57,000 "Administrative Analyst" to clean her private office in the county building.

And a $95,000-a-year Assistant County Treasurer was tasked with organizing parties for Pappas' office.

"Channel 2 and the Better Government Association is not going to tell Maria Pappas how to run her office," Pappas said last year of the use of her staffers.

Other politicians, like Northlake Mayor Jeffrey Sherwin and Sauk Village Mayor Lewis Towers, who also manages the assessor's office in Markham, have been caught by CBS 2 and the BGA, getting homeowner's exemptions they were not entitled to.

When it's the Cook County Treasurer, "It's an outrage," Rehkamp said. "You're talking about the Cook County Treasurer. She's a central cog in the property tax system here."

In a written statement, Pappas said, "I made a mistake in receiving more homeowner's exemptions than I should have."

Before and after they married in 1991, Pappas said she and her husband owned separate homes. After they were married, they continued to receive separate property tax bills, and paid them separately.
"We did not realize that we were receiving multiple homeowner exemptions, when, as a married couple, we should have received only one," Pappas said.

The properties were sold years ago, "unaware that we had received those extra exemptions. When we learned of them, we made immediate payment," Pappas added.

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