Suburban businessman Naren Patel has donated generously to Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown's campaign fund over the years: More than $85,000, according to election records.
But Patel's generosity is now prompting questions about whether Brown crossed an ethical – and perhaps a legal – line amid revelations that her husband was essentially given a commercial building by Patel in 2011.
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Brown's consulting business ended up on the title a few months later and then sold the structure in 2012 for $100,000, a Better Government Association/FOX 32 investigation found.
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.)
Either way, questions abound about why someone would hand over a potentially valuable piece of property to a politician.
Reached on the phone, Brown hung up on a reporter. She later relayed through her government spokeswoman she won't comment on "personal matters." Her husband indicated the same in a brief conversation with a reporter.
In interviews, Patel and his lawyer said the nearly 100-year-old single-story commercial building at 2201 S. Pulaski in Chicago was given to Benton Cook III 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. Patel can't recall who first raised the idea of Benton Cook III getting the property, Patel lawyer Robert Orman said.
Patel said he conveyed the triangular parcel – where Pulaski, Ogden and Cermak converge – to Benton Cook III in June 2011 for a single dollar. (County property records indicate no money changed hands, but in practical terms there doesn't seem to be any difference.)
Circuit Court Clerk's Cash Grab Moves Forward (click to read more)
Bill would raise court-filing fees in Cook County, raising millions for the patronage-plagued office.
By Patrick McCraney/BGA
While the state's attention was focused on the same-sex marriage vote earlier this month, the Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court quietly won approval from the Illinois General Assembly on a measure that would generate millions of dollars for the troubled office.
If it wins final approval, which is necessary from both Gov. Pat Quinn and the Cook County Board of Commissioners, the cost to file a court case would go up by $20. Of that, half would go toward automation, and half would go to the office's plagued warehouse system.
At $337 for some cases, Cook County already has among the highest court filing fees in the country. Brown's office estimates this bill would generate around $13 million a year.
"[I]t will help continue the process of digitizing court files, the purchasing of new civil and criminal case management systems, as well as improving warehouse and file tracking procedures," said Brown spokeswoman Jalyne Strong.
The Better Government Association has uncovered serious issues with Brown and her workforce this year alone, including widespread problems with missing records needed for the appeals process. Also, many documents were stamped with the wrong year on them, according to a high-ranking official in the Cook County court system.
While many have criticized Brown's office for being a bloated, patronage-filled operation, Brown told the BGA earlier this year automation wouldn't mean reductions in her workforce.
A Quinn spokeswoman said the governor is "reviewing" the legislation, and wouldn't say whether he plans to sign it.
If he does, it also needs approval from the Cook County Board. An aide for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said, "If and when Governor Quinn signs the bill, we will evaluate its potential impact and gauge support among commissioners."
This article was written and reported by the Better Government Association's Patrick McCraney. He can be reached at (815) 483-1612 or email@example.com.
The next month, Brown's name was added to the paperwork as an owner. And in October 2011 the ownership was transferred to Sankofa Group LLC, a private business Brown runs from her South Side home, according to state and county records.
In November 2012, Sankofa sold the building to a partnership affiliated with a Frankfort developer for $100,000, and it was subsequently knocked down, according to city and county records.
The Frankfort developer, Musa Tadros, said he tried at various times over the years to buy the building from Patel, but was rebuffed.
"I own the shopping center across the street, I've been trying to buy the building for the last 25 years" so he could knock it down and improve visibility for the shopping center, Tadros said.
Orman said Tadros talked about buying the building more than a decade ago for a price that wasn't realistic at the time.
Tadros said he only found out Benton Cook III had obtained the property when Brown's husband approached him about using some of his shopping center parking for a business Benton Cook III was planning to open at the 2201 S. Pulaski property.
Tadros said he declined to help out with the parking because he'd long wanted to buy the structure and tear it down.
He eventually realized that wish when Sankofa sold to the Frankfort partnership.
Tadros said, "I honestly felt I overpaid," but insisted the sale had nothing to do with Brown or politics.
Patel, however, had been politically tied to Brown for years.
Patel's recollection is they met at a local event for Indian Americans, as Patel is originally from India, Orman said.
One of Patel's cousins is a top aide to Brown making more than $110,000 a year, though Orman noted the cousin has been working for the agency since before Brown was first elected in 2000.
Patel and the west suburban company he runs, Medstar Laboratory, which handles medical testing, together donated more than $85,000 to Brown over the last decade, according to state election board records. Medstar workers have donated another $15,000 to Brown, and Patel has also been involved in raising campaign money for her, records indicate.
Brown and Patel were part of a group that traveled to India a few years back, but Orman said Brown paid her own way.
Medstar does no business for Brown's agency, said Brown's spokeswoman.
Orman said the building transfer wasn't as big of a deal as it may look at first blush. Patel initially tried to sell the structure on the market, with no luck, and by giving it to Benton Cook III was able to get out from under the upkeep, taxes and liability, Orman said.
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 "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.
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.