A joint investigation by WGN-TV, Chicago magazine and the Better Government Association raises ethical questions about the head of the Cook County Ethics Board.

Once a month, tucked away on the 30th floor of the County Building, a group of men and women meet to address the “ethics” of Cook County. It’s obvious they’re not accustomed to visitors because there is no place to sit. And, even though the meetings are open to the public, we were not welcomed.

First, the Ethics Board tried to stop us in the lobby. It was a surprising reaction since open meetings are called open for a reason. So, after lots of jostling and arguing, we were allowed up stairs – only to be disappointed. The man we were looking for, the Chairman of the Ethics Board, wasn’t there. He decided to call in instead.

For months, WGN-TV, the Chicago Magazine and the Better Government Association have been trying to get John Pikarski to answer “ethical” questions concerning his relationship with the new Cook County Assessor, Joe Berrios.

Over two decades, Pikarski’s law firm has donated thousands of dollars to Joe Berrios’ campaigns. His firm’s clients got back millions in property tax reductions from the Board of Review, where Berrios used to work. Now, the ethics chairman and his staff are being asked to rule if Berrios violated ethics by hiring his daughter and son to work at the Cook County Assessor’s office.

Andy Shaw with the Better Government Association says, “It’s kind of hard to sit in judgment of Joe Berrios and the ethics of his nepotism when you in fact practice law in front of him and try to get tax reductions for your clients and more importantly when you’ve been one of his campaign contributors. You can’t have it both ways. It’s an obvious conflict of interest and the county board ought to eliminate that.”

In September, the Cook County Board tried to do just that.

While Berrios was attending a campaign breakfast, the County Board was tightening up the law on campaign contributions. Cook County Commissioner Timothy Schneider says he tried to eliminate all campaign contributions made by companies doing business with the County, but was able to reach consensus by agreeing to reduce the limits by half.

Now, law firms like Pikarski’s can only give $750 in off election years and $1,500 during an election. But, even before the change, in 2008 and 2009 it appears the Ethic’s chairman’s law firm may have contributed more money than allowed.