Was Emanuel Aide Entitled To Property Perk?

As Rahm Emanuel’s campaign blasts opponent Jesus “Chuy” Garcia for taking more than one property tax break, questions surface about a tax exemption collected by mayoral aide Cheryl Hyman, the City Colleges chief.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Cheryl Hyman and Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia. (Courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times)

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s campaign has been hammering election opponent Jesus "Chuy" Garcia in television commercials for accepting two property tax breaks when only one was allowed.

But did top Emanuel aide Cheryl Hyman – the City Colleges chancellor, who appeared in another campaign commercial speaking glowingly of the mayor – accept a property tax perk she wasn’t entitled to?

The Cook County assessor’s office says no, but she says she might have.

For several years we’ve researched property records to see whether public officials were improperly accepting a "home owner exemption" on land they own.

A home owner exemption is a property tax break – which shaves, on average, about $450 from a tax bill – applied to a person’s primary residence.

For those owning more than one place, just one perk is allowed. Over the years we found numerous political figures – thanks to weak controls at the assessor’s office, ignorance of the rules and, likely in some instances, greed – improperly collecting more than one of these perks.

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Anyway, back to Hyman, who was first appointed chancellor by the City Colleges board in 2010 with the support of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley. Emanuel since has kept Hyman at City Colleges.

Rules require City Colleges employees to live in Chicago.

With her mother, Hyman co-owns a house in Lansing, a south suburb. And Hyman rents an apartment in Chicago, which she contends is her main residence.

The 2,277-square-foot, two-story Lansing home, which the mother and daughter apparently bought in 2002, has been drawing a home owner exemption for at least six years, according to records and interviews.

But, with Hyman acknowledging she doesn’t live in the Lansing home, should the home qualify for the tax break? We asked Hyman and the assessor’s office.

The assessor’s office says yes, the property indeed is entitled to the exemption. That’s because Hyman’s mom "resides in the home and both mother and daughter are listed on the deed as co-owners," assessor’s spokeswoman Maura Kownacki told us via email.

But Hyman, who is paid $250,000 a year as chancellor, indicated to the Better Government Association she wasn’t entitled to it and decided to refund three years of tax breaks, totaling $3,423.50.

A City Colleges spokesman emailed a statement to us: "Upon moving into a rental unit in Chicago, the Chancellor was not aware of the requirement that her [home owner exemption] should be removed on the only home she owns and pays taxes on, and where her mother continues to live. . . . Upon becoming aware of this issue, Chancellor Hyman immediately contacted the Cook County Assessor’s office to remedy the situation. She has filed the necessary paperwork to stop the exemption, and has paid the required amount of $3,423.50 for the three tax years in question."

We asked to talk directly to Hyman, but she refused. We pressed the City Colleges spokesman on the disparity between Hyman’s interpretation and the assessor’s, and he referred us back to the email statement.

‘In a difficult spot’

As we indicated, Emanuel’s April 7 runoff election opponent, Garcia, a Cook County commissioner, got dinged in 2011 for taking two home owner exemptions.

Garcia inherited his boyhood home from his parents, and it carried an exemption. So did the house he actually lived in. So he was taking two tax breaks. Garcia said it was an honest mistake and refunded roughly $8,500.

Emanuel’s campaign has seized on this, making a campaign commercial ripping Garcia for double dipping on tax breaks.

Meanwhile, another Emanuel campaign featured Hyman, who spoke glowingly about Emanuel, describing him as "very relentless . . . very forceful, but I think it’s exactly what we need."

This raised a couple of questions: Is Hyman allowed to promote her boss, Emanuel, in a political ad? And, in any event, is it ethical?

The answers: Yes, and it depends who you’re asking.

We learned the City Colleges inspector general fielded a complaint about the Hyman ad and referred the matter to the system’s ethics office, which reviewed the rules.

Turns out so long as Hyman didn’t tape the ad while on the clock for the taxpayer-supported community college system or otherwise use public resources, she was allowed to do it.

But we’re also told the Emanuel campaign asked Hyman to do the political ad.

"I don’t think she could reasonably turn down that request," said Illinois Campaign for Political Reform Executive Director David Melton. "Certainly if [she] doesn’t want to do it . . . it puts her in a difficult spot."

An Emanuel campaign spokesman said there isn’t anything wrong with the re-election team asking Hyman to appear in the TV spot.

"The Mayor and Ms. Hyman are proud of the progress they've made by working together to improve the curriculum and student outcomes" at City Colleges, Steve Mayberry said in an email.