Feds want two years for Cook County judge convicted of fraud

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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

Federal prosecutors want a two-year prison sentence for the woman who rose to become Cook County’s first female Filipino-American judge.

But a lawyer for Jessica Arong O’Brien hopes the federal judge who will decide her fate takes into consideration her good deeds and the punishment she has already felt from her fraud conviction, including a “sudden and extreme” fall from success.

“Professionally, she rose as far as she could — a judge,” defense lawyer Steve Greenberg wrote in a court memo filed Friday. “Now she has fallen as far as she can — a felon. She has lost her career, her reputation, her purposefulness, and possibly, soon, her family life and freedom.”

O’Brien, 51, is due to be sentenced Nov. 20. A jury found her guilty in February after prosecutors said she pocketed $325,000 during a mortgage fraud scheme that took place more than a decade ago, before she became a judge in 2012.

Despite the guilty verdict, O’Brien remained on the bench for months and even filed paperwork to seek retention in November. A state comptroller’s database shows she has been paid $151,200 this year. Her most recent paycheck was dated Sept. 28.

O’Brien held her job while insisting that U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin could still overturn the jury’s verdict. He shot her down in September, prompting O’Brien to finally drop her bid for retention and resign.

In their own memo to Durkin, prosecutors pointed to O’Brien’s lack of remorse for the crime she committed with co-defendant and colleague Maria Bartko.

“Throughout this proceeding, without any basis, the defendant has portrayed herself as a victim,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Madden wrote. “The victim of the lenders. The victim of an unjust prosecution. The victim of Maria Bartko’s purported lies. The defendant seems to blame everyone other than herself for this prosecution.”

O’Brien was born in the Philippines and visited the United States for the first time when she was 15, according to Greenberg’s memo. She moved to Chicago in 1995 to study law at The John Marshall Law School. She graduated in 1998 and worked part-time as a real estate broker from 2003 until she became a judge in 2012. She was also a special assistant attorney general for the state Department of Revenue for 12 years.

As a judge, O’Brien was first assigned to traffic and small claims courts, presiding over bench trials until she was assigned a jury room in 2016. She is married to Cook County Judge Brendan O’Brien.

After O’Brien’s indictment, Greenberg said people began to treat her “as a pariah.” Now, he said, her “lifetime of devotion to community and to the legal profession is in shambles.”

“Jessica’s good deeds, contributions, and the losses she has already sustained should be given due consideration,” Greenberg told the judge.

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