Store Owner Indicted in Separate Financial Investigation
An employee of the Cook County Assessorâ€™s Office and a Chicago grocery store owner have been charged in separate financial investigations for stealing thousands of dollars in taxpayer money by diverting checks and accepting kickbacks in schemes involving homeowner tax exemptions issued by the Assessorâ€™s Office, Cook County Stateâ€™s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced today.
Victor Benitez, 57, of Chicago, has been charged with Theft of Government Property, a Class 1 Felony. Benitez is alleged to have fraudulently applied for homeowner tax exemptions on behalf of unsuspecting Cook County property owners and directed more than $70,000 worth of the homeowner exemption checks issued by the Cook County Treasurerâ€™s Office to his address, post office boxes or friends or family members. Benitez owns a grocery store in the Brighton Park community.
Also charged was Maria Gonzalez, 54, of Lyons, who worked as a Taxpayer Information Senior Specialist in the Assessorâ€™s Taxpayer Services Department since 2001. Gonzalez, who is charged with Official Misconduct, a Class 3 Felony, is alleged to have accepted more than $9,000 in kickbacks from Cook County property owners in exchange for assisting them in obtaining Homeowner Exemption Certificate of Error refunds.
The case was developed by the Public Corruption and Financial Crimes Unit as part of the Cook County Stateâ€™s Attorneyâ€™s Office ongoing operation against public corruption on the local level.
Stateâ€™s Attorney Anita Alvarez called the thefts â€œshameful,â€ and said her office will continue to crack down on public employees and others who steal funds or unlawfully game the system.
â€œThere is simply no tolerance for the theft of public money anywhere in Cook County government and we will continue to aggressively investigate and prosecute these crimes to the fullest extent of the law,â€ Alvarez said.
According to prosecutors, between Oct. 26, 2009 and Oct. 7, 2010, Benitez is alleged to have stolen 48 Homeowner Exemption refund checks valued at more than $70,000. The refund checks stolen by the Defendant were for multiple years on seventeen different properties located within Cook County. The stolen checks were each mailed by the Cook County Treasurerâ€™s Office to an address where the Defendant received mail. None of the property owners listed as payees on the stolen checks ever applied for these checks nor saw these checks before. All endorsements on the backs of the checks turned out to be forged.
Prosecutors allege that Benitez used the majority of the stolen checks to purchase items which he then sold in his grocery store such as prepaid phone cards, produce and grocery items.
In her role as a Taxpayer Information Specialist, Gonzalez processed applications for Homeowner Exemption Certificates of Error submitted by citizens to the Cook County Assessorâ€™s Office. She was also responsible for assisting customers who walk into the Assessorâ€™s Office with questions regarding property tax exemptions.
According to court filings, Gonzalezâ€™ responsibility was to review the applications and verify that the property owner was entitled to the Homeowner Exemption. After she verified that the property owner was entitled to the Homeowner Exemption Certificate of Error, she was responsible for inputting the information into the Assessorâ€™s Office Computer System, which is then electronically transferred to the Cook County Treasurerâ€™s Office. The Treasurerâ€™s Office would then issue a check to the property owner for the amount of the overpaid tax.
On four separate occasions between April 16, 2010 and Feb. 12, 2011, prosecutors allege that Gonzalez accepted a kickback from property owners in exchange for assisting them in obtaining Homeowner Exemption Certificate of Error refunds. In total, Gonzalez is alleged to have solicited and received over $9,000 from individuals for assisting them in obtaining Certificate of Error refunds. Gonzalez met each property owner at their home, told each property owner she worked for the Cook County Assessorâ€™s Office, and then solicited and accepted a payment from each property owner in exchange for assisting them in obtaining Certificate of Error Refund Checks. The defendant asked for a kickback of twenty to fifty percent of the recovered funds.
In total, Gonzalez is alleged to have solicited and received over $9,000 from individuals for assisting them in obtaining Certificate of Error refunds. According to court filings, some of these property owners were not entitled to receive a Homeowner Exemption refund because their property was rental property.
A property owner in Cook County is entitled to a Homeowner Exemption credit on his property taxes if the property is the ownerâ€™s principle residence. A Homeowner Exemption is a credit that reduces the total property tax owed on a property for a specified tax year. If a property owner is entitled to claim the Homeowner Exemption, but fails to do so, the property owner has three years to claim a refund of the Homeowner Exemption amount.
The process for Cook County citizens to claim a Homeowner Exemption refund for a prior year is to submit a Homeowner Exemption Certificate of Error Application to the Cook County Assessorâ€™s Office. If the property owner qualifies for the Homeowner Exemption for the specified years a Homeowner Exemption Certificate of Error is granted and the information is electronically transmitted to the Cook County Treasurerâ€™s Office. The Treasurerâ€™s Office then mails a Homeowner Exemption refund check to the property owner.
The Stateâ€™s Attorneyâ€™s Office thanked the Cook County Assessorâ€™s Office for their assistance during the investigation.
The public is reminded that criminal charging documents contain allegations that are not evidence of guilt. The defendant is presumed innocent and is entitled to a fair trial at which the state has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.