Brown's Inside Pitch
Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown and husband Benton Cook III already are facing scrutiny for their involvement in a state-government grant program and a land deal with a campaign donor.
On Monday, the Better Government Association and FOX 32 raised new ethical questions for Brown after finding that she solicited her government employees to participate in an outside business venture and, separately, that her daughter's church ended up with a $250,000 grant as part of a now-defunct Quinn administration program now under state and federal investigation.
The Sun-Times has reported that two groups with ties to Brown received funding through the state grant program – which was supposed to pump money into anti-violence initiatives but ended up allegedly benefitting some people with political connections. One of the groups tied to Brown paid her husband a salary and benefits with grant money.
But the BGA and FOX 32 found another curiosity: More than $250,000 in grant money went to Living Word Christian Center, a Forest Park church that counts Brown's daughter Detris Brown as a member, volunteer and former divinity student.
Neither Detris Brown nor Dorothy Brown would comment for this story.
Church spokeswoman Kim Clay said Detris Brown had "nothing to do" with the grant that went to the church's prison ministry, which offers job training, counseling and educational opportunities to ex-offenders.
A spokesman for Gov. Pat Quinn didn't return telephone calls. Quinn's administration conceived the $54.5 million grant program – called the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative – during his 2010 election bid. Prosecutors are looking into whether any of that money was improperly spent or distributed.
Meanwhile, the BGA and FOX 32 also found Dorothy Brown has become active in 5LINX, a New York-based multi-level marketing operation compared by co-founder Jeb Tyler to Mary Kay and Amway.
5LINX sells a variety of products including security systems, weight loss shakes and vitamins. Salespeople can collect commissions for their own sales – and for the sales of others they recruit to sell.
Dorothy Brown's role with the company isn't totally clear. But sources relayed that her campaign committee held a "special business opportunity" meeting in March – off-site, after hours at a Near South Side church – at which a number of Circuit Court clerk employees were in attendance and encouraged by Dorothy Brown, who was a speaker at the gathering, to participate in 5LINX so they all could make money.
Dorothy Brown's campaign committee sent out solicitation emails for the event to Circuit Court clerk employees as well, sources said.
The email states, "Please invite your family and friends who you think would be interested in hearing about a business opportunity where they can properly add to the financial health of their family."
Whether any of this violates county or state ethics rules isn't clear.
But Dorothy Brown's critics questioned the appropriateness of her soliciting her own employees – who could feel pressure to participate in 5LINX to appease their boss.
"At the end of the day the question isn't whether employees were actually pressured, but whether they felt pressured to participate," Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey said. "And clearly if the boss is going to profit from their participation, there's going to be a pressure on them."
Even Tyler, the 5LINX co-founder, said his company frowns on salespeople soliciting underlings in their day jobs. "We don't want people doing that," Tyler said. "It puts them in a conflict of interest."
A spokeswoman for the Circuit Court clerk's office would only say on this subject, "None of your questions is related to the operations of the Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court; therefore we have nothing to add."
The findings come amid revelations that local prosecutors and the Cook County inspector general are probing a deal in which a Dorothy Brown campaign donor gave Benton Cook III a piece of land that the couple later flipped for $100,000.
Previously Dorothy Brown came under fire for soliciting and accepting campaign donations from her employees. The agency is the bureaucratic arm of the county court system, processing and holding millions of court records such as lawsuits.