The federal investigation that’s been looking into job-selling and on-the-clock politicking in the office of the Cook County circuit court clerk hasn’t kept one of Cook County’s presiding judges from contributing to Clerk Dorothy Brown’s campaign fund.
In late 2017, Cook County Circuit Judge E. Kenneth Wright Jr. — who has been on the bench for 24 years and oversees the court system’s First Municipal District and its 72 judges — gave Brown, who now is running for mayor, a $1,000 contribution, records show.
That’s the latest of 17 campaign contributions Wright has given Brown since 2003, when she was in her first term as the elected court clerk, having run as a reformer to head a county agency with a history of patronage and corruption.
According to Illinois State Board of Elections records, he has given a total of $10,585 to Brown’s campaigns, including $1,860 since the first news reports, in 2014, that a criminal investigation of the court clerk’s office was underway.
“I’ve done it since she’s been there, given money from time to time, no particular reason,” Wright says. “She’s not my friend. There’s nothing I want from her, and there’s nothing she can do for me. . . . I really didn’t think about it from the standpoint of her being under scrutiny.”
The judge wouldn’t rule out giving money to Brown’s campaigns again.
“I don’t quite have as much money to give out,” Wright says, noting that he also contributes to other politicians’ campaigns and to charities. “My church keeps me drained. I won’t say no . . . but probably not to the extent” he gave in 2017.
“If she were indicted or something like that,” Wright says his views on giving more money to Brown’s campaign would “be different.”
Two former court clerk’s office employees have been charged with lying to a federal grand jury that’s part of the investigation. Sivasubramani Rajaram pleaded guilty and was given probation. The other case is pending.
According to court records, two others have been under investigation over allegations one helped sell a job and the other bought one in Brown’s office. Court records show the federal investigation remains ongoing and that Brown is a target.
The investigation started with Cook County’s inspector general after a 2013 news report about another Brown campaign contributor giving Brown’s husband a property whose ownership later was transferred to Sankofa Group LLC, a private company Brown ran from her South Side home. The property was sold for $100,000, and the proceeds weren’t reported as a campaign contribution or gift.
The investigation grew to involve the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, the FBI and federal prosecutors.
Brown, who hasn’t been charged with any crime, has denied wrongdoing.
Her campaign spokeswoman says, “Contributions . . . have been solicited and made within the letter of the law and adhered to all campaign fundraising rules.”
Brown is part of a crowded field trying to unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel next year. Others in the 2019 mayoral race: activist Ja’Mal Green, attorney John Kozlar, Troy LaRaviere of the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association, former Chicago Police Board member Lori Lightfoot, former Chicago police Supt. Garry McCarthy, tech entrepreneur Neal Sales-Griffin, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and businessman Willie Wilson.
Brown and Wright both work at the Daley Center. Brown’s agency is the bureaucracy for the county court system centered there, processing filings and storing records. Wright oversees a section of the court system that handles, among other things, housing, eviction and traffic cases in Chicago, as well as certain civil lawsuits. He is one of a handful of “presiding” judges under Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans.
Asked whether he plans to vote for Brown, Wright makes a distinction between that and giving her money.
“That is a different story,” the judge says. “I’d probably . . . have to look at her situation, and her situation doesn’t look as bright right now . . . There’s a cloud. And because there’s a cloud, I’d have to look at that very carefully.”
Brown’s latest quarterly fundraising report to the state shows 33 contributions totaling $29,410.
Among the donors was Odis Reams, whose Big O Movers was hired by county government, following a competitive-bidding process, to move court records to a new storage space for Brown’s office.
“Brown told me that she was running and asked me for my support,” Reams says.
Though Reams had filed for bankruptcy protection earlier in the year, he gave her campaign $1,000.