On a quiet street in Oak Lawn, a brick split-level home with a built-in pool sat empty for years, mold growing in the flood-prone basement.
Federal lenders seized the house after the couple who owned it split up. They sold it to the Cook County Land Bank Authority, a government agency established for just such a circumstance: to find buyers for vacant houses, usually in struggling neighborhoods.
Two developers offered to buy and fix up the home, which an inspector had warned “is not a rehab for the faint of heart or a tight budget.” But the land bank turned down both developers.
Instead, it sold the home in 2018 — at a lower price than what the developers offered to pay — to Natasha Cornog, executive assistant to the land bank’s top boss, and her elderly mother on the condition that they live there. And so the Cornogs paid $150,000 for the home the land bank had bought for $141,786.
Land bank officials say the insider deal didn’t violate any rules at the time, though the county has since barred its employees from buying property from the agency.
But Cornog had another problem, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation found. She was taking homestead property tax exemptions on that house and also two more she owns, records show. The law allows you to take only one homestead exemption — on the home where you live.
Sun-Times reporters asked the Cook County assessor’s office about Cornog taking two more homestead exemptions than the law allows. That prompted her boss, Robert Rose, executive director of the land bank, to fire her Feb. 12 from her $79,148-a-year job as his assistant.
Those extra homestead exemptions cut Cornog’s property tax bills by more than $16,000 over the past 14 years. That’s money that the rest of Cook County’s property owners had to make up.
At the Sun-Times’ request, the assessor’s office determined that Cornog had been living prior to 2018 in a West Side home she co-owns with her mother and shouldn’t have received exemptions on her two other homes.
And there’s another property tax issue with the West Side house. The fired county employee’s mother, Delores Cornog, 81, has saved more than $23,000 in property taxes since 2006 as a result of taking a senior citizens assessment freeze.
But that’s a tax break you’re eligible for only if your household has a total income of less than $65,000. The daughter’s salary as a county employee exceeded that.
Citing privacy concerns, the assessor’s office won’t release the mother’s application for the tax break, which includes income information.
But that office says it is now investigating how the property tax freeze was obtained and also whether it will move to have any of those tax breaks repaid.
The assessor’s office says it also will ask Natasha Cornog to repay $5,911 as a result of four years of having taken improper exemptions on two homes she owns on the South Side.
Rose says Cornog had nothing to do with the land bank’s decision to acquire the Oak Lawn home at 8712 Austin Ave. He says the property had been vacant for five years and was advertised on the land bank’s website, so it was available to anyone. Rose says he has no records to show that, though.
The Cook County Board changed county rules in November 2018 to ban county employee and their immediate relatives from acquiring property directly from the land bank. That came after an October 2018 WBBM-TV report on Cornog’s insider deal.
Natasha Cornog hung up on a reporter. Her mother wouldn’t comment.
The Land Bank Authority is under investigation by Cook County’s inspector general’s office as the result of a Sun-Times report in November on another insider deal. That one allowed Chester Wilson, Ald. Carrie Austin’s chief of staff, to donate a decrepit building to the land bank, which wiped out more than $200,000 in unpaid taxes on the property, and then sold it Wilson’s business partner.
That prompted Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to call for an outside audit of the program. A firm recently was hired to do that, according to a Preckwinkle spokesman.
When the land bank sold Natasha Cornog the 2,276-square-foot house in Oak Lawn in August 2018, she already owned two other homes — at 78th Street and Sawyer Avenue and at 97th Street and Parnell Avenue — and a house in the 500 block of North Lawler Avenue that she and her mother listed as their residence for the Oak Lawn mortgage, state IDs and voter registrations.
Like many of the properties the land bank acquires, the Oak Lawn home was structurally sound. According to an inspector the agency hired, it could be fixed up, but that was a job for an “experienced rehabber . . . due to severe mold and water damage” in the flood-prone basement and roof and heating problems throughout the original structure and a spacious addition.
Unlike most of the land bank’s deals, the Oak Lawn house didn’t have unpaid property taxes that needed wiping out — that’s among the agency’s powers — to make it more attractive to buyers.
Days before the contract was finalized, developers were emailing about the property. Windy City Development sent an offer on Sept. 6, 2017, to pay $166,786, providing the name of someone it had lined up to buy and live in the rehabbed home.
“Mold remediation and renovation will be completed within 6 months,” Windy City Development wrote.
“That should be fine,” a land bank staffer responded.
On Sept. 8, 2017, though, the land bank backed out of the deal.
“The property at 8712 Austin, Oak Lawn, is being purchased for the [Cook County Land Bank Authority’s] Homebuyer Direct program and was not intended to be sent out for an investor purchase,” a land bank staffer wrote. “There was a miscommunication and I mistakenly sent out the property. The CCLBA considers the terms sheet null and void.”
The same day, another developer expressed interest, saying he, too, had a buyer lined up. “It is currently not listed on the website. Please advise how to apply for this property?” wrote Mike Joudeh, a rehabber with TBI Contractors.
Rose immediately responded: “We will be selling this house directly to an owner-occupant. This property [is] for our Homebuyer Direct Program.”
Despite what the land bank’s inspector had said about the work requiring “an experienced rehabber,” Rose wrote: “These houses require minimal work and allow homeowners the ability to customize their homes and build equity.”
The land bank didn’t announce the Homebuyer Direct Program until Sept 25, 2017 — more than two weeks later — though Rose says the program actually was started Aug. 1, 2017.
Records show Joudeh continued to ask about the property’s availability through December 2017.
Joudeh says he offered $20,000 more than what the land bank had paid.
The first developer also asked the land bank to reconsider, saying it had a homeowner lined up.
In January 2018, Natasha Cornog put down a $1,000 deposit on the Oak Lawn home and agreed to bring it up to code within 12 months of closing on the property. She used her county government email address to communicate about the deal, which her mother later joined.
The records the land bank released don’t show whether any repairs have been made or whether the house has been inspected since its sale, though Rose later provided photos he says show renovations and moved-in furniture as of November.
The files show his agency asked Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to weigh in on the sale to Cornog, who’d been a county employee since 2014.
Foxx signed off on the deal on three conditions:
- The terms and Cornog’s county employment had to be disclosed.
- The sale price had to be for fair-market value.
- “And it must be her primary residence.”