Hands Helping, And Outstretched
In her bid to become a Cook County Circuit Court judge, Mary Alice Melchor's unsuccessful campaign got a $500 donation late last year from the political committee of Dorothy Brown.
That's the same Dorothy Brown who runs the government office Melchor is paid to oversee. As inspector general of the Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court, Melchor is in charge of rooting out fraud, abuse, waste, mismanagement and unethical behavior.
In an interview with the BGA, Melchor said she didn't know that she received the contribution and was "surprised" to hear of the money donated to her campaign committee in November 2013 (according to state election records). Asked if there was a conflict between the contribution and her county position, Melchor said she took at least six weeks off from her job before the March primary. Melchor came in last of four candidates in the Democratic primary to replace P. Scott Neville Jr. The primary winner was William Raines.
None of the major Chicago-area lawyer groups endorsed Melchor for judge or found her qualified.
Brown's office is the bureaucratic arm of the Cook County court system, processing and holding millions of lawsuits and other records. Melchor is paid an annual salary of $111,000 to police the office, according to Cook County's payroll database.
Separately, Brown and her husband Benton Cook III face ethical questions related to a state grant program, a land deal with a campaign donor and, most recently, a solicitation of government employees who were invited to a multi-level marketing sales meeting involving a company called 5LINX.
Prior to becoming inspector general of the court clerk's office, Melchor gave $750 in total to Brown's political campaign in 2002 and 2003, state records show.
Asked if the recent contribution by Brown's campaign to inspector general Melchor presented a conflict of interest, a spokeswoman for Brown's office responded via email: "Your question today is not related to the operations of the Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court."
A Senator And Salesmanship
As we noted, Brown has solicited her employees (via a campaign email and an after-hours rally) to participate in 5LINX – which sells security systems, weight loss shakes and vitamins, among other things.
The sales model has been likened to Amway and Mary Kay. The more you sell, the greater the commission. And the more people you rope into selling, the more you share in their commissions.
Turns out Brown isn't the only elected official involved in this sideline.
State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt (D-Chicago) also is a 5LINX representative. On her most recent statement of economic interest (a form public officials must fill out) Van Pelt lists herself as a senior vice president with 5LINX and reports earnings in excess of $1,200 "during the preceding calendar year."
Van Pelt has been soliciting others to participate in 5LINX – and using her "senator" title in the solicitations.
We discovered this because a BGA employee received an unsolicited Facebook message from Van Pelt about 5LINX. The message read in part, "Listen, I started a new business in December and let me tell you it has been very profitable for me and for several individuals with whom I've shared it. I want to extend a personal invitation for you to come out and learn more about it! This business has produced million-dollar earners in Illinois."
The message is signed "Senator Patricia Van Pelt, PhD."
She later explained that one of "my team members sends these out," not her personally.
We were curious whether Van Pelt was following the Dorothy Brown model – soliciting public-sector employees, which could be construed as improper if it's the boss doing the ask.
Van Pelt refused to say.
We've certainly heard complaints from Brown employees who said they don't like being solicited by their boss, even after hours.
But Melchor, the Circuit Court clerk inspector general, said she hasn't heard a whisper of Brown's 5LINX pitch.
Nobody's complained to her and she isn't investigating her boss' conduct related to 5LINX, Melchor said.
And, she added, until we asked her about this situation, she had not even heard of the company.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Melchor said.
This column – a new regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing on the Chicago Sun-Times' political portal Early & Often – was written and reported by the Better Government Association's Brett Chase and Patrick Rehkamp. They can be reached at email@example.com or (312) 821-9033.