The in-house watchdog for Cook County government has launched an investigation into Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown in the wake of a Better Government Association/FOX 32 report that raised questions about how she and her husband ended up with a $100,000 piece of property from a campaign fund-raiser.
"The inspector general’s office is actively investigating the issues that were brought to light by FOX/BGA – all of the issues," said Patrick Blanchard, who runs the office.
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He declined to elaborate. However, the story reported this past November by FOX and the BGA raised questions about whether Brown crossed an ethical – and a legal – line amid revelations that Brown’s husband was essentially given a commercial building by wealthy fundraiser and donor Naren Patel in 2011.
Brown and her consulting company later ended up on the title of the parcel, at 2201 S. Pulaski in Chicago, and in November 2012 Brown’s company sold the land for $100,000, public records show.
Whether the conveyance of the property to Brown’s husband Benton Cook III constituted a campaign donation, a gift or a true sale, it appears this should have been publicly disclosed by Brown – who, as an elected official, is subject to disclosure rules designed to prevent conflicts of interest and promote transparency, according to documents and interviews.
But the 2011 or 2012 transactions weren’t revealed on Brown’s campaign reports filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections, or her "statement of economic interest" on file with Cook County Clerk David Orr’s office. (Violations of these rules typically bring no consequences, although fines are possible.)
Patrick Blanchard, Inspector General / YouTube
Either way, questions abound about why someone would hand over a potentially valuable piece of property to a politician.
Brown’s spokeswoman released the following statement: "The Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County asserts that questions regarding any investigations conducted by the Office of the Cook County Inspector General are best addressed by the Cook County Inspector General."
The spokeswoman added, via email: "Clerk Dorothy Brown knows that she has not violated any rules or laws."
Patel, who has donated more than $85,000 to Brown’s campaign fund over the years, has at least one close relative working for Brown in the Circuit Clerk’s office.
Patel and his lawyer have said the nearly 100-year-old single-story commercial building on Pulaski was given to Brown’s husband because it was dilapidated and not worth much, and Patel simply wanted to get rid of it. They said it was not intended as a political donation and Patel wanted nothing in return.
The Circuit Court clerk’s office is the repository for court records in Cook County – basically the bureaucratic arm of the court system. As the elected head of that agency, Brown has been the subject of considerable controversy.
Not only has the Circuit Court clerk’s office been criticized for gross inefficiencies – paper filings and lost records in a digital age – Brown made news in 2010 when the BGA and FOX revealed her practice of allowing employees to wear jeans to work if they gave money to a charity fund.
The county’s inspector general investigated the so-called "Jeans Day" program and found: "Although there are records of managers collecting and submitting funds to the accounting department, the [inspector general] could not verify that the managers submitted all the money collected from employees."
Brown, a CPA and an attorney, has unsuccessfully run for Chicago mayor and Cook County Board president.
Because the BGA favors government streamlining where it makes sense, the nonprofit watchdog has previously floated the idea of merging her agency with several other paper-processing county units with elected leaders at the helm, including the Cook County treasurer’s office and the Cook County recorder of deeds.
Below are questions posed to Brown by the BGA and FOX, and answers from her spokeswoman:
1. When did Clerk Brown learn about Cook County inspector general's investigation?
2. Is Clerk Brown cooperating?
3. What is her understanding of the IG's focus?
4. Has Clerk Brown's office or any employees received subpoenas related to this investigation?
5. Has she or any employees been interviewed to date?
6. Does Clerk Brown believe she violated any rules or laws by her and her husband's acceptance of that building from Mr. Patel?
7. Is she concerned about this IG investigation?
8. Has Clerk Brown given thought to resigning her office?
9. Has Clerk Brown given thought to eliminating her own in-house IG since it’s widely believed that position is not doing enough to root out problems in the agency.
Questions 1 – 5.
The Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County asserts that questions regarding any investigations conducted by the Office of the Cook County Inspector General are best addressed by the Cook County Inspector General.
Clerk Dorothy Brown knows that she has not violated any rules or laws.
As the Clerk of the Circuit Court, Clerk Brown’s concerns are the efficient and effective operation of the Clerk’s Office, and providing high quality customer service to the citizens of Cook County.
No. The in-house IG is very effective at handling employee disciplinary complaints and audit services as well as IG-related matters.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth and Patrick Rehkamp, and FOX 32’s Dane Placko. They can be reached at (312) 821-9030 or firstname.lastname@example.org.