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Cook County judge found guilty of fraud to seek retention in November

Cook County Judge Jessica Arong O'Brien, shown leaving the Dirksen Federal Courthouse last year.
| Sun-Times file photo

Federal jurors found Cook County Judge Jessica Arong O’Brien guilty of fraud earlier this year.

Then the Illinois Supreme Court suspended her law license.

But once November rolls around, her name will apparently be on the ballot.

Refusing to back down three months after losing her trial at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, O’Brien filed paperwork May 2 setting herself up for a retention vote in the Nov. 6 election, according to the State Board of Elections.

BACKGROUND:

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

O’Brien filed her paperwork the week after the Illinois Supreme Court suspended her from practicing law “effective immediately.” Meanwhile, she’s been trying to convince a federal judge to overturn the jury’s verdict.

For now, she continues to be paid as a Cook County judge but does no judicial work, records show.

Her lawyer, Steven Greenberg, says she filed for retention in case she’s successful in court.

“If the judge agrees with us and either grants a new trial or enters a finding of not guilty, then why shouldn’t she be eligible to continue with her life?” Greenberg said. “She’s presumed innocent.”

Election board general counsel Ken Menzel said O’Brien’s name will probably remain on the ballot, regardless. That’s because simply surviving the retention vote won’t return her to the bench. She must also prevail in court, he said.

“If she’s removed from office and she does survive the retention vote, she’s been removed from office and they wouldn’t swear her into another term,” Menzel said. “It’s not like we need some complicated process for getting her name off. And the public’s interests are protected.”

O’Brien’s troubles have created an unusual legal situation in Illinois. Not only is it rare for a sitting judge to be found guilty in federal court, O’Brien’s criminal case also revolves around conduct that happened well before she became a judge.

Federal prosecutors accused her of pocketing $325,000 during a mortgage fraud scheme that took place more than a decade ago.

O’Brien has been paid $82,300 so far this year, according to state comptroller records. The jury found her guilty Feb. 15, and state law says a conviction knocks her out of office. Circuit court judges make $198,075 annually.

The Illinois constitution also requires a judge to be “a licensed attorney-at-law of this State.” O’Brien is “not authorized to practice law due to discipline,” according to an Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission database.

Since her indictment, O’Brien had been doing administrative duties. Typically, that includes presiding over marriages. However, a spokesman for Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans said she is no longer even doing that.

O’Brien has argued she “has not been convicted of the crimes with which she has been charged” because U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin has not yet ruled on a pending motion for acquittal, among other things.

She also hired a new attorney, Greenberg, who filed a 70-page motion Monday night seeking either her acquittal or a new trial. As a result, Durkin agreed Tuesday to push O’Brien’s sentencing back until Oct. 5 — meaning the situation may not be resolved until one month before the Nov. 6 election.

One entity that could intervene is the Judicial Inquiry Board. When the Supreme Court suspended O’Brien’s law license, it referred her case to that body, which has the power to investigate misconduct by judges. If it sees fit, the JIB can send a complaint to the Courts Commission, which has the power to remove a judge.

But nearly one month after that referral, the JIB has taken no public action. And the Supreme Court only issued its order at the request of the ARDC, which had hoped the Supreme Court would enjoin O’Brien from acting as a judge.