By the BGA, FOX and Sun-Times
Under investigation for well over a year for possible corruption, Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown is facing more scrutiny from law enforcement, including a federal probe focusing in part on personnel decisions made by her office.
One source familiar with the case said the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago has an active grand jury looking into Brown’s conduct, including loans she may have received from employees “in connection to employment.”
Another source relayed being interviewed by the FBI more than a year ago, saying, “They asked me about personnel stuff, was somebody paying for a job . . . why was this person promoted . . . pay to play.”
The revelations come as federal agents visited Brown’s South Side house last week and seized her county-issued cellphone, developments first reported by Politico.
Approached by a reporter at the Columbus Day parade this week, Brown dismissed questions about an FBI visit to her home and a federal investigation as “rumor” and the product of “political season.” She has consistently denied any wrongdoing.
The federal investigation appears to be an outgrowth of a probe by Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard, who began investigating Brown following a November 2013 news story by the Better Government Association and FOX Chicago about a land deal involving Brown, her husband, Benton Cook III, and Brown campaign donor Naren Patel.
Patel gave a Near Southwest Side commercial building to Cook in 2011. Ownership of the building was then transferred to Brown’s consulting company, Sankofa Group LLC, which then sold the parcel in 2012 for $100,000 to a partnership affiliated with a Frankfort developer named Musa Tadros.
None of this was listed on Brown’s campaign filings or ethics statements, as apparently it should have been.
Not only did the inspector general start looking at Brown, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and the Chicago FBI also joined in.
Tadros recently told a reporter he was subpoenaed a year or more ago to provide records and testify before a grand jury looking into the land transaction.
Tadros said he thought it was a state – not federal – grand jury. “It was about a year ago, I haven’t heard anything since,” Tadros said recently.
“I didn’t do anything kinky,” he said. “I actually overpaid [for the building purchased from Brown’s firm] and tore it down.”
Patel – who donated more than $85,000 to Brown’s campaign fund over the years and has a relative employed by Brown’s office as a high-level official – has since died.
More than a year back, the Circuit Court clerk’s office was subpoenaed by the U.S. attorney’s office for Brown’s “office emails on the office email system,” according to a source with knowledge of the request. However, after some back and forth between prosecutors and Brown’s office, the subpoena was never fulfilled, with the feds apparently backing off, the source said.
It’s unclear why — and whether the subpoena related to the land deal or something else.
Federal authorities declined to comment.
There has been another federal investigation, centered in Springfield, into how Brown’s husband, among others, ended up with anti-violence grant money from then-Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration. Investigators were looking into whether politics drove the distribution of grant money.
Despite having a felony conviction for a financial crime, Cook was paid $146,401 over two years to oversee subcontractors in the program, called the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, records show.
Brown has been the subject of considerable attention by the media in recent years.
News stories have centered on, among other things, Circuit Court clerk employees donating money to Brown’s campaign. Brown also has encouraged employees to participate in a marketing business called 5LINX that Brown has been part of.
“Some employees had received emails from her” about 5LINX, said a former Circuit Court clerk employee.
The Circuit Court clerk’s office has endured past scandals. One of Brown’s predecessors, Morgan Finley, was convicted in a late 1980s bribery case and went to prison.
Over the years some have suggested eliminating the Circuit Court clerk position – at least as an elected job. The office is the repository of court records, and an enduring source of patronage jobs.
Brown, who is up for reelection in 2016, sought and received an endorsement from the Cook County Democratic Party in August, despite published reports that she was being investigated.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth and Patrick Rehkamp, FOX Chicago’s Dane Placko and Chris Fusco of the Chicago Sun-Times. The BGA’s Katie Drews and the Sun-Times’ Jon Seidel and Mitch Dudek contributed. To reach the BGA, call (312) 821-9030 or firstname.lastname@example.org