By the BGA, FOX Chicago and Sun-Times
Cook County Democratic Party leaders decided Friday to withdraw their endorsement of Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown – and instead back Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) – following revelations that Brown is the target of a federal corruption investigation.
Despite an impassioned plea from Brown during a morning meeting of dozens of township and ward committeemen Friday at the Erie Café in Chicago, the group rescinded its August “slating” of Brown in her reelection bid, and threw its support to Harris.
The decision doesn’t mean Brown can’t run in the March 15 Democratic primary. But it deprives her of organizational support in the form of funding, and foot soldiers who knock on doors to get the signatures needed to get candidates on the ballot.
Brown appears to lack her own real political machinery and had less than $40,000 on hand in her campaign fund at the end of September, records show.
Brown wouldn’t comment about the party’s decision, which followed last week’s revelations that the FBI had showed up at Brown’s South Side home with a subpoena for her cell phone – and that a federal grand jury was investigating whether Brown had accepted loans or other financial support from employees in exchange for jobs or promotions.
But she tried hard to keep the endorsement, urging the leaders Friday to back her for a post “which I so richly deserve and worked very hard for over the years.”
“Investigations are started all the time,” Brown told party leaders. “It could be your opponent. It could be a disgruntled customer. It could be anybody.”
The party unanimously decided to back away from Brown, said Cook County Democratic Party Chairman Joe Berrios, the county assessor.
Brown told ABC 7 earlier in the week that she didn’t know whether she was the target of the investigation, but sources have said she is.
Meanwhile, the Better Government Association, FOX Chicago and the Chicago Sun-Times have learned two other Circuit Court clerk employees – one part of Brown’s upper ranks – have hired defense attorneys as the criminal investigation appears to heat up.
Asked separately about allegations of job selling, the two employees told reporters they’d hired attorneys and declined further comment. The attorneys either couldn’t be reached or declined comment.
Authorities also have been asking questions about a business called Goat Masters, sources said. Illinois secretary of state records show a firm by that name was incorporated in 2014 by Brown’s husband, Benton Cook III, with Cook and Brown listed as directors of the business, and the business located at the home the couple shares.
Illinois secretary of state records indicate the company is no longer in “good standing.”
Asked about the company by a reporter earlier in the week, Cook said, “Talk about it with” Ed Genson, Cook’s lawyer.
Genson had no comment.
But one source said Goat Masters is listed on federal subpoenas. Another source said investigators signaled their interest in the company more than a year ago.
It’s unclear what type of operation Goat Masters is or was, but Brown was involved in another firm, Sankofa Group LLC, that appeared to have some connection to the meat industry at one time, public records show.
Sankofa was at the heart of a land deal that helped spur the current federal investigation.
In 2011, Brown campaign donor Naren Patel gave Cook a Near Southwest Side parcel, the BGA and FOX revealed in a 2013 story. The land was then transferred to Sankofa and sold for $100,000 in 2012.
Brown didn’t disclose the transaction on her campaign or ethics filings.
Spurred by the BGA/FOX findings, Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard opened an investigation, which led to an inquiry by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and the ongoing federal probe.
The Democrats dumped Brown on Friday, at least in part, because they felt she had lied to them. She was asked during the August slating whether she was under investigation, and she said no.
Before Friday’s meeting got underway, Brown chatted with Illinois House Speaker and Illinois Democratic Party chief Michael Madigan for several minutes. It’s unclear what they were discussing, but Madigan has a number of political supporters employed in the Circuit Court clerk office, a patronage-rich agency that serves as the repository of court records.
As he left Friday’s meeting Madigan said he supported shifting the endorsement to Harris.
Other potential candidates in the primary include attorney Jacob Meister and community activist Tio Hardiman.
They have both portrayed the Circuit Court clerk’s office as a mess, behind the times in terms of technology, and a place where court records are routinely lost.
But speaking to party leaders, Brown said her office “is a model for the country.”
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Patrick Rehkamp and Robert Herguth, FOX Chicago’s Dane Placko and the Chicago Sun-Times’ Chris Fusco. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 386-9201. BGA intern Marissa Boulanger contributed to this report.