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Indicted Cook County judge says FBI recorded her phone calls

Federal prosecutors want a two-year prison sentence for Cook County Judge Jessica Arong O'Brien, center, in a February fraud conviction. She is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 20.| Santiago Covarrubias/For the Sun-Times

The FBI twice recorded phone calls placed to a Cook County judge last fall while they were investigating her for fraud, court records show.

Cook County Judge Jessica Arong O’Brien now faces a federal criminal indictment for alleged mortgage fraud and is pushing for a speedy trial this summer. Her lawyer, Ricardo Meza, revealed the existence of the feds’ recordings of his client in a motion filed late Tuesday. Meza wants prosecutors to hand over the rough notes of FBI agents who were looking into criminal activity allegedly committed by O’Brien before she became a judge.

Two FBI agents recorded calls placed to O’Brien by her now co-defendant, Maria Bartko, on Oct. 7 and 8, according to Meza’s motion.

“After a few failed attempts to reach Ms. O’Brien by phone, Bartko engaged in two substantive conversations with Ms. O’Brien,” Meza wrote.

Federal prosecutors have handed over recordings of the conversations, Meza wrote. However, he has not seen any document indicating what instructions the FBI gave to Bartko before or during the calls, “including instructions on what to say and what not to say,” whether Bartko or the agents suggested certain lines of questioning, and what Bartko said to either agent after the calls were placed, he wrote.

O’Brien, 49, has been charged with one count of mail fraud affecting a financial institution and one count of bank fraud. O’Brien’s alleged crimes occurred before she was elected the first female Filipino-American judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County in 2012, filling the seat vacated by the retirement of Judge Harry Simmons Jr.

She has been reassigned to administrative duties in the office of Judge E. Kenneth Wright Jr., the presiding judge of the first municipal district.

Federal prosecutors allege O’Brien got lenders to provide loans “by making false representations and concealing material facts in documents submitted to the lenders.” An attorney at the time, she used the loans to buy and refinance about $1.4 million in mortgage and commercial loans, including the purchase of an investment property in the 600 block of West 54th Street in the Back of the Yards, prosecutors said.

She then allegedly fraudulently refinanced the mortgage on that property and a second investment property in the 800 block of West 54th Street.

O’Brien allegedly obtained a commercial line of credit through fraud to maintain the properties, before selling them to Bartko, 49, of Chicago, and a straw buyer who fraudulently obtained the mortgage loans, prosecutors said.