Bonds News

Illinois House speaker makes his money lowering property taxes

Chicago, Feb 8 (Reuters) - As Illinois House speaker for more than three decades, Michael Madigan has often worked to raise people’s taxes. As a private attorney, he works to lower them.

Madigan & Getzendanner is one of Illinois’ leading law firms for clients filing appeals to contest their property appraisals in an effort to reduce their real-estate taxes.

Between 2004 and 2015, the speaker’s firm won $63.3 million in refunds for clients, according to a Reuters analysis of data from the Cook County treasurer’s office. In 2015, Madigan’s practice ranked second among law firms in total property tax refunds, the county data shows.

Madigan’s chief political rival, Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, has said Madigan’s law firm poses a conflict of interest for the speaker. Rauner alleged the conflict as legislation he supported to freeze property taxes stalled in the House, which Madigan and his Democratic majority controlled.

“Mike Madigan is making millions - millions - from his law firm from high property taxes,” Rauner told reporters in June 2015.

Madigan, who declined to be interviewed for this report, has in the past denied any conflict of interest.

Madigan’s spokesman, Steve Brown, said the speaker scrupulously follows all ethics laws and has strict personal standards.

“None of his actions as an attorney, a member of the House of Representatives or speaker have been inappropriate, violative of any law or ethical rule or against his own personal code of conduct, which goes beyond the law or legal requirement,” Brown said.

Madigan & Getzendanner did not respond to inquiries from Reuters. On its website, the firm says it specializes in major commercial properties, such as office buildings, hotels, shopping centers and industrial sites.

Little is known about Madigan’s personal wealth. In 2014, after seeking to impose a 3 percent tax on Illinois’ millionaires, Madigan refused to release his income-tax returns to show if his plan would personally impact him. In a news conference, he offered only that he made at least $1 million “in a good year.”

Decisions on the property values used to calculate taxes are made by the Cook County assessor, Joseph Berrios. Property owners can appeal to Berrios’ office about his assessments or to separate boards with the county and the state. Businesses and homeowners often hire law firms to make their cases for tax reductions with those entities.

A former state representative, Berrios is chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, a post he assumed with help from Madigan, who is a voting member of the county Democratic organization.

Berrios is also an investor in a lobbying firm with clients that have business before the legislature in Springfield. Berrios’ daughter, a former member of Madigan’s House Democratic caucus, is a registered state lobbyist.

Berrios spokesman Tom Shaer said the assessor recuses himself from any decisions in cases involving Madigan & Getzendanner clients and has not dealt directly with Madigan on an assessment matter during more than six years in county office.

Madigan co-founded his law firm in 1972, just as his career as a state legislator was getting started. Madigan & Getzendanner’s client list grew to include firms with ties to the state, as well as political donors.

At least six financial institutions that Madigan & Getzendanner listed as clients last year on its website have ties to Illinois pension systems. They have donated more than $109,000 since 2000 to the speaker or to his daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, state campaign records show.

A spokesperson for Lisa Madigan declined to comment.

Madigan & Getzendanner previously listed clients on the firm’s website, but that online list disappeared after Reuters began inquiring about the firm’s clients last year.

Illinois is not among the 26 states that require lawyer-legislators to disclose information about their clients. In fact, Brown said, an Illinois Supreme Court rule bars lawyers from disclosing clients’ identities without permission.

Illinois does require officeholders to disclose the nature of professional services for which they received at least $5,000. In his latest filing, Madigan noted only that he performed “legal services for various individuals, partnerships and corporations.”

Edited by David Greising and Brian Thevenot