More than a dozen employees of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown’s office and their family members made campaign contributions to Brown within six months of getting a promotion and pay raise, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis has found.
In all, 15 workers and their families made a total of more than 50 campaign contributions to Brown in the six months before or after receiving promotions in the circuit court clerk’s office, the analysis of county payroll and state campaign contribution records shows.
Altogether, the contributions totaled more than $20,000 to the campaign fund for Brown, who is facing allegations by federal prosecutors that jobs or promotions were secretly sold at the public agency that she was first elected to run in 2000.
Brown’s office has been the subject of the federal corruption investigation for four years. She hasn’t been charged with any crime and has denied any wrongdoing.
Among the Sun-Times’ other findings:
- Brown reported getting campaign money from six employees or their families within about two weeks of a promotion.
- The clerk’s campaign fund reported two contributions totaling $250 from one of the workers three days after he got a promotion and raise in 2010.
- Another employee’s $150 contribution was logged six days before a promotion in 2008.
- A family member of another court clerk’s office worker was reported to have given $12,500 two months after a 2008 promotion, though the donor says he doesn’t think that or all of the contributions from his relatives to Brown’s campaign fund — a total of $82,000 — actually occurred.
- The 15 court clerk’s employees included top aides to Brown, secretaries and two people working for a supervisor who, according to allegations outlined in court documents, “facilitates the purchase of jobs” inside the agency.
- Contributions from nine court clerk employees who’ve gotten promotions were reported by Brown’s campaign within a year leading up to or following their hiring at the agency, including $500 from a top official several months before being hired in 2005, plus another $500 five days after his start date.
- Altogether, the employees and their families have made a total of 295 contributions for nearly $140,000 to Brown’s campaign over the years.
Brown says there’s “no correlation” between money given to her campaign and jobs.
In a written statement, the court clerk says her agency “promotes or hires individuals based upon need” and looks at “qualifications” in deciding who gets management positions, while anti-patronage rules are in place for hiring for union jobs and collective-labor agreements play a role in who gets promotions in those fields.
Brown says she “has hired 1,232 people and given promotions to a total of 2,398 employees, both union and management, and most employees have been promoted more than once; essentially amounting to more than 6,000 promotion instances. Obviously, there have been thousands of promotions and hundreds of hires of individuals who have made no donations whatsoever, which proves that no correlation exists between clerk’s office promotions and/or hires and random donations.”
Money came during race vs. Preckwinkle
In one case, state election records show two campaign contributions of $100 each were made in June 2009 from the address of an employee of the office who was promoted and given a raise in July 2009. Brown’s campaign also reported a $100 contribution from that employee’s household in May 2009 and $50 in both March and April of that year.
After the promotion, Brown’s campaign filings show, another series of contributions came in from the employee’s household — $100 in August 2009, $100 in September 2009, $125 in November 2009, $125 in December 2009 and $125 in January 2010, records show.
At the time, Brown was in the middle of a four-year term as court clerk. But she was running in the February 2010 Democratic primary for Cook County Board president. Toni Preckwinkle won that race and the general election and has held that office ever since.
Another court clerk’s office employee, who began working for the agency before Brown first took office, was promoted in May 2003, records show. Brown’s campaign fund reported getting $125 from that employee the previous month and another $100 the month after the promotion, records show.
That employee says any promotions he’s gotten have followed his supervisor’s recommendations based on “ability” and “work performance” and says he wasn’t buying a promotion — “no, no, no, no.”
It’s legal for politicians to solicit and accept campaign contributions from their employees as long as it’s not done on taxpayer time and no strings are attached.
Still, some elected officials have placed restrictions on employee contributions. Brown did so in 2012 after facing criticism.
2 contributions came after self-imposed ban
Most of the campaign contributions involving employees that the Sun-Times found came in before then. But Brown’s campaign has continued to accept money from some employees, including two $100 contributions in 2016 from an administrative assistant who has made 34 contributions to Brown totaling $4,625 since 2002, records show.
It’s not always easy to determine which donors are also employees of the court clerk’s office because occupations and employers aren’t always listed by her campaign despite the state requiring that this be done for any contributions that top $500 in a three-month reporting period.
Brown would not answer questions about 14 other campaign contributors whom the Sun-Times identified as having the same names as employees who got promotions but could not confirm whether they work in the court clerk’s office.
Two former court clerk’s employees — Sivasubramani Rajaram and Beena Patel — have been charged with lying to federal authorities investigating allegations that jobs and promotions in Brown’s office were sold.
The federal investigation began after news reports revealed that a relative of Patel who has since died transferred a piece of land to Brown’s husband. The land was transferred to a company run by Brown and sold for $100,000 but not reported as a campaign contribution or gift.
Rajaram was accused of giving a $15,000 “loan” to a company owned by Brown and her husband in exchange for being hired by the court clerk’s office, the court system’s bureaucracy. Rajaram pleaded guilty in that case to lying to a grand jury and was sentenced to probation.
Patel’s case is still pending.
Brown a target of federal investigation
Court records also say two others have been under investigation over allegations that one helped sell a job and the other bought one in the court clerk’s office.
Court records show the federal probe is continuing and that Brown remains a target.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a court clerk’s employee who has known Brown for years and gave money to her campaign shortly after being hired says there was no quid pro quo. She says she doesn’t believe Brown would make such a demand or knowingly allow jobs or promotions to be tied to contributions.
“I am loyal to her until I find some reason not to be,” she says. Regarding the federal investigation, she says, “Hopefully, the outcome is going to be favorable.”