Cook County Judge Jessica Arong O’Brien found guilty of fraud in mortgage scheme

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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

Before jurors began to consider the case against Cook County Judge Jessica Arong O’Brien, her attorney explained that she had chosen to trust them with her fate.

“She put her trust in the jury system,” Ricardo Meza said.

But Thursday, that jury returned with a guilty verdict that removes her from the bench under state law and puts her at risk of serious prison time. And when it did, a subtle look of resignation passed over O’Brien’s face as she sat at the defense table.

Once a rising star in the legal community —and the first female Filipino-American elected judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County — O’Brien was convicted Thursday of bank fraud and mail fraud affecting a financial institution. Federal prosecutors say she pocketed $325,000 as she lied to lenders amid a $1.4 million mortgage scheme.

Meza called the allegation a “cockamamie concoction” hatched by the government as he spoke to jurors before their deliberations. After O’Brien’s conviction, he declined to comment. Her sentencing hearing has been set for July 6.

O’Brien, 50, is the wife of Cook County Judge Brendan O’Brien. She has been assigned to administrative duties ever since her indictment. Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans’ communications director said that “is the strongest action” the court’s executive committee can take. Anything further would have to be handled by the Judicial Inquiry Board and the Illinois Courts Commission.

State law says the conviction removes O’Brien from office. An Illinois Supreme Court spokesman said Thursday afternoon that it had not received a resignation letter.

A federal grand jury indicted O’Brien in April 2017 for a scheme reaching back more than a decade. Ahead of the trial, Meza accused prosecutors of targeting O’Brien simply because of her job, and he suggested they should have indicted others.

“Why indict any of those people when you’ve got a Cook County judge?” Meza said last summer.

Early on, Meza also revealed that the FBI twice recorded phone calls placed to the judge.

However, the charges against her have nothing to do with her job. And the evidence against her led to a dry, paper-based fraud trial. The feds told jurors she 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.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Madden said O’Brien inflated her income “like a hot air balloon” as she applied for loans and at one point failed to mention a $260,000 mortgage on her primary residence. Then, after selling the properties to a co-worker named Maria Bartko through a straw buyer, Madden said O’Brien made two undisclosed payments to Bartko totaling $73,000.

Bartko, who was a licensed loan originator, pleaded guilty to her role in the alleged scheme last month.

Meza called the case “rotten to the core.” He said simple credit reports would have caught many of the lies prosecutors accused O’Brien of telling. And he mocked the claim that O’Brien had a nefarious arrangement with Bartko, telling jurors that, “the only thing she left off there is ‘kickback check.’”

“There is no scheme,” he said.

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