Dorothy Brown’s 13-year reign as Cook County’s Circuit Court Clerk gets mixed reviews, but two things are pretty evident: She’s bold, and politically connected.
Bold enough to push legislation in Springfield that would raise about $13 million a year by adding $20 to the per-case filing fee, despite ongoing questions by the Better Government Association and other watchdogs about piles of patronage, forgotten files and curious contracts and contacts.
And connected enough to get it passed, so it’s now awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature.
But a curious thing happened along the way:
The influential 22,000-member Chicago Bar Association, which traditionally opposes legislation that would raise filing costs, didn’t take a position on this measure.
Cook County already has among the highest filing fees in the country — lawyers constantly grumble about that, and about the bumbling bureaucracy that maintains and processes court records — so it’s fair to suggest this hike would enable Brown to throw good money after bad.
So where was the CBA?
“Literally, we dropped the ball on this, and I’m not sure why,” says the association’s executive director, Terry Murphy. “We missed this bill.”
Now, after questions from the BGA, Murphy says he’ll urge Quinn to veto the measure.
Even if the governor signs it, the Cook County Board still has to sign off before it takes effect, and that’s where it gets more curious.
“Our filing fees are already too high,” says Commissioner Larry Suffredin. “We’re pricing the middle class out of going to court.”
But Suffredin won’t be able to vote on the measure because of a key conflict of interest: He’s the lobbyist for the Chicago Bar Association.
Shouldn’t he have known about Brown’s bill and alerted his client?
Suffredin says no — he gets involved with bills only after the CBA decides whether to take a position, not before, and Murphy confirms the protocol.
Sounds odd, but there’s more in this tightly wound world of politics and the courts.
Fred Moody, from House Speaker Mike Madigan’s political organization, works in Brown’s office, and with Madigan’s support, Brown’s bill sailed through the House in early 2013.
Moody declined to comment, but a Madigan spokesman says “we have supporters in just about every office, so what difference does it make?”
Then there’s Al Levin, a friend of Larry Suffredin, who works as Dorothy Brown’s director of intergovernmental affairs, so if Brown’s office is pushing a fee increase, Levin is making the case.
Levin also has a side business that helps candidates collect signatures on nominating petitions, and Suffredin recently sent a couple of judicial candidates his way.
“There are no secret relationships here,” Levin says. “Nobody plays hide the ball for anybody else’s benefit. It’s all open, it’s all above board.”
But he won’t tell us who passed the petitions for the candidates, or how much he made on the deal.
Suffredin thinks the foot soldiers came from Levin’s former employer, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 399, which has given more than $80,000 to Dorothy Brown since 2000, but the union didn’t return our phone calls seeking confirmation.
For its part, the CBA has no qualms about Suffredin.
“Larry is probably the best, most ethical representative in the state of Illinois,” Murphy says.
As for Brown’s push to raise filing fees, some of the money would go toward automating court records, which is long overdue.
But Brown hasn’t ruled out hiring more staff, which is troubling, given the chronic inefficiencies in her office, including employees who sit around chatting while long lines form at counters.
So regardless of what’s going on behind the scenes, Quinn and the Cook County board should be skeptical about letting Brown have millions of additional dollars until she starts running her office more efficiently.
She may be bold, and connected, but from this watchdog’s vantage point, that’s not enough to warrant additional tax dollars.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.