Cook County Democratic Party leaders on Friday withdrew their endorsement of Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown in the March 15 primary amid a federal corruption investigation, instead throwing their support to a newly announced candidate, Ald. Michelle Harris (8th).

Harris, a strong supporter of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is in her second term representing a South Side ward that includes parts of Chatham, Pullman, Pill Hill and Calumet Heights.

The moves came after a defiant, emotional Brown pleaded with the party’s leaders to continue backing her and dismissed news reports linking her to the federal investigation as “unsubstantiated.”

“Investigations are started all the time,” Brown said. “Many of you have probably had investigations related to you.”

Brown, who is seeking her fifth term as clerk, also insisted the party had no authority to rescind its support, saying a $25,000 contribution her campaign committee made to the party following its endorsement equated to a legally binding contract.

Brown concluded her five-minute plea, saying ”In my heart of hearts, I have not done anything wrong. . . . I deserve your endorsement.”

Her impassioned words were met with tepid applause. Then, the committeemen went into closed session and returned soon after with the news they were no longer supporting her.

That led to a round of speeches in which three other potential candidates — Harris, attorney Jacob Meister and community activist Tio Hardiman — sought the party’s endorsement, and Brown attempted one more time to win over party leaders.

In the end, Harris got the party’s nod.

“In government, people will elect you if they feel they can trust you,” Harris said afterward. “What I want to be is honest . . . and bring integrity to myself and to the county.”

The political drama ensued as more details about the investigation involving Brown emerged.

The FBI seized Brown’s county-issued cellphone earlier this month as part of the probe, which is focusing on loans or other money possibly being given to Brown by clerk’s office employees, allegedly in exchange for jobs or promotions, sources with knowledge of the investigation have told the Chicago Sun-Times, Better Government Association and FOX Chicago TV.

Now, two Circuit Court clerk employees – one of them part of Brown’s upper ranks – say they’ve hired attorneys to represent them. Asked separately about allegations of job selling, the two declined to comment further, and their attorneys either couldn’t be reached or declined comment.

In another new development, sources said authorities have been asking about a business called Goat Masters, a firm formed in 2014 by Brown’s husband, Benton Cook III, records show. Cook and Brown were listed as directors of the business, which was based at their South Side home.

Goat Masters, according to a source, is listed on federal subpoenas involving the clerk’s office.

Asked about the company this week, Cook said, “Talk about it with” Edward M. Genson, Cook’s lawyer.

Genson had no comment.

It’s unclear what Goat Masters does or did. But Brown was involved in another company — this one called Sankofa Group LLC — that appeared to have some connection to the meat industry at one time, records show.

In 2011, a Brown campaign donor gave Cook a triangular parcel in Lawndale, records show. The land was then transferred to Sankofa — which Brown ran out of her home — and sold for $100,000 in 2012. Brown didn’t disclose the transaction on her campaign or ethics filings, prompting the county’s inspector general to begin investigating what transpired.

On Friday, she dodged reporters’ questions about whether she’d read the federal subpoena that sought her cellphone or whether she has talked to employees or others who might have been interviewed by authorities. “I’ve made my statements regarding that,” Brown said repeatedly.

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), the new endorsed candidate for Cook County Circuit Court clerk.

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), the newly endorsed candidate for Cook County Circuit Court clerk, replacing Dorothy Brown. / Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Brown faces a harder road to re-election without the party’s support. As of the end of September, she had only $36,986 in her campaign fund — a relatively small sum from which to build a countywide campaign. Candidates have until late November to gather the nominating petition signatures required to get on the ballot.

Party Chairman Joseph Berrios, also the elected Cook County assessor, dismissed Brown’s claim that her previous endorsement amounted to a contract and said the party would return to Brown’s campaign the $25,000 contribution it had made. Berrios also discouraged Brown from running against Harris because “we will make a full effort to make sure Michelle gets elected.”

Meister, who has been campaigning against Brown for weeks, expressed his frustration at Harris’ decision to run for the office in the wake of Brown’s collapse.

“Unlike some other potential candidates, I didn’t run for this office in the past 72 hours,” he told party leaders. “Please, dare to be different. Dare to vote your conscience, not simply the way the bosses told you to.”

The vote for Harris ended up being unanimous, Berrios said, though not all of the 80 Democratic committeemen or their proxies were present.

Chris Fusco is a Sun-Times reporter. Patrick Rehkamp and Robert Herguth report for the Better Government Association. Dane Placko is a reporter for FOX Chicago TV. 

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, left, arriving Friday morning for the special Cook County Democratic Party meeting to decide whether the party will withdraw its support for her in next March's primary.  |  Chris Fusco / Sun-Times

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, left, arrives Friday morning for the special Cook County Democratic Party meeting at which party leaders withdrew their support for her in next March’s primary. Thornton Township Democratic Committeeman Frank Zuccarelli, right, tried to renominate Brown for the party’s endorsement, but his effort failed. | Chris Fusco / Sun-Times