Hiring, ‘pay to play’ focuses of Dorothy Brown probe

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Federal investigators are looking into whether Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown accepted loans from employees in exchange for jobs or promotions as part of a wide-ranging probe into possible corruption, according to sources.

A source familiar with the case said the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago has a grand jury looking into Brown’s conduct, including loans she might have gotten from employees “in connection to employment.”

Another source, speaking of having been interviewed by the FBI more than a year ago, said, “They asked me about personnel stuff. Was somebody paying for a job? . . . Why was this person promoted? . . . Pay to play.”

Those revelations come as federal agents visited Brown’s South Side house last week and seized her county-issued cellphone.

Earlier this week, at Chicago’s Columbus Day parade, Brown dismissed questions about an FBI visit to her home and a federal investigation as “rumor” and a product of “political season.” She has denied any wrongdoing.

The federal investigation appears to be an outgrowth of a probe by Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard, who began investigating Brown following a November 2013 news story by the Better Government Association and FOX Chicago TV about land dealings involving Brown, her husband Benton Cook III and Naren Patel, a Brown campaign contributor.

Patel gave a Near Southwest Side commercial building to Cook in 2011. Ownership of the building was transferred to Brown’s consulting company, Sankofa Group LLC, which then sold the parcel in 2012 for $100,000 to a partnership affiliated with a Frankfort developer named Musa Tadros.

None of this was listed on Brown’s campaign filings or ethics statements.

In addition to the inspector general, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and the Chicago FBI joined in the investigation.

Tadros recently told a reporter he was subpoenaed a year or so ago to provide records and testify before what he believes was a state grand jury looking into the land dealings.

“It was about a year ago,” Tadros said. “I haven’t heard anything since.

“I didn’t do anything kinky,” he said. “I actually overpaid [for the building] and tore it down.”

Patel — who has since died — contributed more than $85,000 to Brown’s campaign fund and has a relative employed by Brown’s office as a high-level official.

More than a year ago, the clerk’s office was subpoenaed by the U.S. attorney’s office for Brown’s “office emails on the office email system,” according to a knowledgeable source.

After some back and forth between prosecutors and Brown’s office, the subpoena was never fulfilled, with federal authorities apparently backing off, the source said.

Federal authorities declined to comment.

There has been another federal investigation, centered in Springfield, into how Brown’s husband and others ended up with state anti-violence grant money from then-Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration. Despite having a felony conviction for a financial crime, Cook was paid $146,401 over two years to oversee subcontractors in the program, called the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, records show.

Brown has encouraged employees to participate in a marketing business called 5LINX that she has been involved with, according to a former employee who said, “Some employees had received emails from her” about 5LINX.

Brown, who is up for re-election in 2016, won the Cook County Democratic Party’s endorsement in August despite reports she was being investigated.

Chris Fusco is a Sun-Times reporter. Robert Herguth reports for the Better Government Association, and Dane Placko is a reporter for FOX Chicago TV. 

Contributing: Patrick Rehkamp, Katie Drews, Jon Seidel, Mitch Dudek, Michael Sneed

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