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Flap not stopping Dorothy Brown from seeking court fee hikes

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown has endured withering press coverage lately – mostly relating to a state-government grant program that she and her husband may have benefitted from courtesy of the Quinn administration.

But the onslaught of questions hasn’t dampened Brown’s ambitions for a cash infusion into her office, which as the repository of millions of court documents is the bureaucratic arm of the court system.

We’ve learned a top Brown aide in recent weeks has been testing the waters with Cook County commissioners about whether they’d support sizable fee increases on public court filings — something Brown wants badly.

And the answer Brown’s aide has been getting: No way or, at least, not now.

It’s unclear how much of this opposition has to do with the near-radioactive status of Brown right now.

It came to light in early March that the county’s inspector general is investigating a questionable land deal involving Brown, husband Benton Cook III and a campaign donor.

More recently, the Chicago Sun-Times reported how county and federal prosecutors are investigating a $54.5 million state government grant program that ended up funneling money to community groups with ties to political figures — Brown and Cook included. (Their attorney, Ed Genson, said they did nothing wrong.)

As for the court-filing fees, Brown successfully got legislation through the General Assembly last year that allows rates to rise by an extra $20 if the Cook County Board gives the go-ahead. The added fees would generate $13 million or more annually.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle hasn’t publicly staked a position yet, and she’s asked Brown’s office for more detail on how the money would be used.

RELATED: Dorothy Brown: ‘A reformer gone wrong.’

The Circuit Court clerk’s office is antiquated, with paper documents still the norm and a slow movement toward electronic records. Brown has argued that the money would help with modernization.

But Brown’s office doesn’t have the best reputation for efficiency and customer service. In just one example, we reported last year how her office lost or misplaced dozens of critical files needed by inmates for appeals.

The Chicago Bar Association, a trade group for Chicago area attorneys, is opposing the fee hikes, arguing they will hurt low- and moderate-income people needing to file, say, a divorce case or any other lawsuit.

Al Levin, Brown’s intergovernmental affairs guy, confirmed he’s been reaching out to county commissioners over the past month or so. His conclusion, based on those conversations: “The time is not right” to push for a vote.

It’s worth noting there’s an election coming this fall, and politicians are generally loath to increase taxes or fees before an election lest they incur the wrath of voters.

But Cook County Commissioner John Daley explained his position to us this way: “I’d have a very hard time pushing this, because in the president’s budget there [were] no fee increases.”

“I know Al. I said [to him], ‘I’m not supporting it.’ ”

Either way, several people we spoke with predicted the fee plan would resurface down the road for the County Board.

Rosemont Revisited

Rivers Casino opened in Des Plaines three years ago and, in relative financial terms, has been a staggering success.

According to the Illinois Gaming Board, Rivers drew nearly 320,000 visitors in March alone, with nearly $40 million in gross gaming receipts.

The state’s other nine casinos didn’t come close to that kind of draw.

Rivers came to mind recently when we obtained the FBI file (via a Freedom of Information Act request to the feds) on late Rosemont Mayor Donald E. Stephens, who ran the tiny northwest suburb from its inception in the 1950s to his death in April 2007.

Stephens transformed Rosemont from a spit of a town to a convention and entertainment destination that flourished, in part, because of its close proximity to O’Hare Airport.

The Sun-Times wrote upon his death that “Stephens knew how to get what he wanted.”

The newspaper added: “The irony is the one thing he couldn’t get — a casino — is responsible for the main black mark on his legacy: allegations he was connected to organized crime.”

He used his considerable political muscle to try to secure a casino for Rosemont, and the General Assembly did all it could to steer one his way.

But very real concerns over mob influence ultimately derailed his plans, with a casino ending up instead in Des Plaines — a stone’s throw from Rosemont.

Stephens’ FBI file — with documents that date from at least the early 1980s to 2009 — deals in part with the sordid casino saga. Much of this has been the subject of previous news stories.

But one letter contained in the file stuck out. Dated Nov. 1, 2007, it showed the FBI had an open investigation on Stephens and Rosemont until the day he died. Stephens’ death was among the factors that led the FBI to close “its investigation into the proposed casino in Rosemont and all matters related thereto.”

“Initial investigative efforts concentrated on Rosemont Mayor Donald Stephens’ influence on the Illinois State legislature’s decision to locate a casino in Rosemont,” stated the correspondence from then-Chicago FBI chief Robert Grant to then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. “Discussions with the [assistant U.S. attorneys] determined that they believed the evidence developed was not sufficient to support federal prosecution of any individual and the matter was verbally declined.”

“Subsequently, Mayor Stephens’ death, Rosemont’s failure to develop a casino, and a lack of reasonable investigative leads, have all contributed to the FBI’s decision not to conduct any further investigation related to this matter.”

(An FBI memo in the file from Dec. 19, 2007, echoes this point, saying, “All viable prosecution . . . has been completed and the death of the main subject resulted in a [U.S. attorney’s office] declination of any remaining matters.”)

Unfortunately, elements of the Grant-Fitzgerald letter — and large portions of the file overall — were redacted by the FBI before documents were turned over to us. So there’s surely more to the story, and it’s always possible the feds returned to Rosemont at some point or never really left.

Building Inroads Amid Troubles

The public got a whiff there might be trouble at James McHugh Construction Co. — a 117-year-old Chicago firm that’s been involved in numerous government infrastructure projects — more than two years ago when one of McHugh’s subcontractors was charged in a minority-fraud case.

Federal prosecutors said at the time that the McHugh subcontractor, who owned two “construction companies certified as woman-owned and/or disadvantaged businesses, was charged with fraudulently using her companies as sham pass-through subcontractors as part of a scheme to help prime contractors meet the City of Chicago and other local governments’ set-aside requirements for construction contracts.”

While McHugh wasn’t charged with a crime, it was clear back then the company could be in a heap of trouble (which was confirmed earlier this month when McHugh agreed to pay the government $12 million to settle a related lawsuit.)

But that didn’t stop McHugh from donating to political campaigns, and it didn’t stop politicians from taking that money, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Since Jan. 1, 2013, alone, McHugh contributed:

■ $2,000 to Ald. Joe Moore (49th).

■ $1,000 to Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd).

■ $500 to Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st).

■ $500 to Freddrenna Lyle, formerly a Chicago alderman and currently a Cook County judge.

■ $500 to Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer.

■ $500 to Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Patrick Daley Thompson.

■ $300 to Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Barbara McGowan.

There’s nothing illegal about any of this, but we were curious as to why these folks accepted the cash given the problems McHugh was facing.

Dowell told us she wasn’t aware of the situation, but now plans to return the money.

Others that we reached either said they weren’t aware of a donation, or aren’t going to demonize a group that had not been charged or convicted of a crime.

Even with the $12 million lawsuit settlement that was just announced, McHugh admitted no wrongdoing. But the U.S. attorney’s office said the settlement resolves “allegations of fraud on government programs designed to benefit women- and minority-owned sub-contractors.”

McHugh had no immediate comment.

This column was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Patrick Rehkamp, Robert Herguth, Andrew Schroedter and Patrick McCraney. They can be reached at prehkamp@bettergov.org or (312) 386-9201.