Convicted judge still a judge one week later — but effort to remove her afoot

SHARE Convicted judge still a judge one week later — but effort to remove her afoot

Cook County Circuit Judge Jessica Arong O’Brien leaving federal court last year. Jacob Kaplan, the party’s executive director, says O’Brien is a prime example of why the party needs to be more critical in its support of retention candidates. | Sun-Times files

A week has passed since a federal jury found a sitting Cook County judge guilty for her role in a $1.4 million mortgage fraud scheme.

And a week later, Jessica Arong O’Brien apparently remains a sitting judge despite state law that says the conviction knocks her out of office. No resignation letter had been delivered to the Illinois Supreme Court as of Thursday, a spokesman said, meaning she still collects a $198,075-a-year salary.

However, at least one regulatory body is preparing to take action against O’Brien.

The Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission plans to notify the state supreme court of O’Brien’s conviction and seek an interim suspension of her law license, ARDC spokesman James Grogan said. First it must receive paperwork documenting O’Brien’s conviction from the federal court, he said.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin ordered Thursday afternoon that a certified copy of the jury’s verdict be delivered to the ARDC.

The move has significance because the Illinois Constitution requires judges to hold a law license.

Still, while other agencies might be preparing behind the scenes to take action, no other public effort appears to be underway to remove the judge from office. Complicating matters is the rarity of a sitting judge being convicted in federal court.

Kathy Twine, executive director and general counsel for the Judicial Inquiry Board, said all matters “are confidential unless there is the filing of a formal complaint against any judge with the Illinois Courts Commission.” Before taking such an action, the JIB must give a judge notice and an opportunity to appear before the board, according to its rules of procedure.

O’Brien has been assigned to administrative duties ever since her indictment in April 2017. Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans’ communications director has said that “is the strongest action” the court’s executive committee can take.

O’Brien did not respond to multiple messages from the Chicago Sun-Times. Her defense attorney, Ricardo Meza, declined to comment. He has signaled that O’Brien would ask Durkin to acquit her despite the jury’s verdict. However, he and other lawyers representing O’Brien in the criminal case have sought to withdraw from the matter.

The judge was convicted last week of bank fraud and mail fraud affecting a financial institution. Federal prosecutors said she pocketed $325,000 during a mortgage fraud scheme that took place more than a decade ago — before she became a judge.

O’Brien, 50, is not set to be sentenced until July 6. Tim Blair, executive secretary of the Judges’ Retirement System of Illinois, said his organization typically doesn’t begin considering whether a conviction affects a pension until that happens.

“We’ve not been notified that she’s been removed from the bench,” Blair said.

But Blair also said O’Brien is not eligible to collect a pension.

At trial, Meza called the charges against O’Brien a “cockamamie concoction.” He previously accused the feds of targeting O’Brien because of her seat on the bench.

Prosecutors told jurors O’Brien lied repeatedly as she bought, refinanced and sold properties in the 600 block of West 46th and 800 block of West 54th between 2004 and 2007. They said she inflated her income as she applied for loans and at one point failed to mention a $260,000 mortgage on her primary residence.

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