Can the Cook County Board of Commissioners authorize the County Inspector General to issue subpoenas for documents directly to the County’s elected officials, and compel those officials to cooperate with an IG investigation? The Illinois Supreme Court has agreed to decide that issue in Blanchard v. Berrios, an appeal from the First District, Division Two of the Appellate Court. Blanchard turns on the scope of Cook County’s home rule authority under Illinois law, and particularly upon the intersection between investigating fraud and misconduct – certainly an area of local concern – and tax assessments, which is perhaps not a local area.

The Inspector General’s office was created by the Board of Commissioners to investigate fraud, corruption and misconduct among the County’s elected officials. In late 2013, the IG’s office issued a subpoena to the Cook County Assessor calling for production of all documents relating to homeowners exemptions granted for two specific addresses between 2005 and 2012. The assessor objected, the IG filed suit, and the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The trial court entered an order finding for the IG and ordering the Assessor to turn over the documents.

On appeal, the Assessor argued that the Board could validly assign new duties to elected officials (here, the elected officials’ duty to cooperate with the IG’s investigation) only to the extent permitted by its home rule authority. Although the Supreme Court had held in Chicago Bar Association v. County of Cook that tax assessment didn’t “pertain to the county’s local government and affairs” so as to fall within home rule authority, the First District concluded that the challenged ordinance didn’t relate to assessment – it related to corruption. The courts have suggested that a similar ordinance in Chicago was valid, and courts in other states have held that home rule units have the power to investigate corruption in public officials, the court noted.

The Assessor also claimed that the Board lacked the power to authorize the IG to issue subpoenas. But home rule authority extends to anything of local concern absent a specific and express limitation imposed by the legislature, and the Assessor was unable to point to any statute denying home rule entities the power to delegate their subpoena power.

Finally, the Assessor argued that the ordinance unconstitutionally infringed on the State’s Attorney’s power to convene grand juries and prosecute crimes. The Court summarily rejected that argument, pointing out that nothing in the ordinance authorized the IG to do either one; rather, he or she was simply given the power to notify the appropriate law enforcement authority if evidence of criminal activity was found.

We expect a decision in Blanchard this winter.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Daniel X. O’Neil (no changes).