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Dorothy Brown’s office, campaign implicated in federal bribery indictment

Dorothy Brown in the Sun-Times newsroom Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Dorothy Brown. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown was implicated in a federal indictment unsealed Friday linking her office and campaign with a bribery conspiracy involving a Pennsylvania businessman.

Brown isn’t charged, and her name isn’t in the indictment; instead, she is identified as “Clerk A,” the person in charge of Cook County Circuit Court clerk’s office.

The pay-to-play scheme allegedly involved payments and favors to Brown’s scholarship fund and campaign in exchange for official business with the clerk’s office.

The man at the center of the indictment was 67-year-old Donald Donagher Jr., owner and chief executive of Pennsylvania-based Penn Credit Corporation, which offered debt collection services — and, according to the indictment, much more — to local government offices.

Theodore Poulos, the attorney representing Donagher and Penn Credit, wrote in a statement that the allegations were false. His clients “acted legally and in good faith,” he wrote.

“Unlike the long line of corruption cases that have been prosecuted in Chicago, this case has none of the standard hallmarks of bribery and corruption,” Poulos wrote. “The contracts Penn Credit received from Cook County and other government entities were awarded to it purely on the merits.”

The indictment, meanwhile, painted a shady picture of Donagher and Brown’s relationship as it detailed contributions to Brown’s scholarship fund and birthday celebration, her office’s Women’s History Month celebration and robocalls for her campaign.

The feds linked Donagher to Brown — whose office has been under federal investigation for alleged pay-to-play hiring practices — starting with a June 2011 donation in which Donagher, through his company, deposited a $5,000 check into the bank account connected to Brown’s scholarship and community development fund.

In August 2011, less than three weeks after Penn Credit began collecting debt for the clerk’s office, Donagher allegedly wrote in an email to five of his employees and an Illinois lobbyist that he promised “10k of ‘early’ money” to Brown. The next week, Donagher sent an email to the same employees and lobbyist asking if the lobbyist was available to attend an event for Brown. “We are giving her 10k and want to make it count with [Dorothy] and her staff,” the email read.

Donagher later emailed an aide in the clerk’s office to say he would send the lobbyist to the event in his place. He wrote, “… I have told [Dorothy] and [first name of Brown’s chief of staff] that we would be sending a donation of 10,000 dollars…,” the indictment alleged.

A week later, Donagher donated $10,000 via a PayPal account in his name “towards the fund raising efforts of Contributions to Friends of [Dorothy Brown],” the feds said.

Donagher was accused in the indictment of making at least an additional $5,000 in illegal contributions to Brown through 2014, including a $2,500 donation to Brown’s 2013 birthday celebration.

Aside from the money Donagher allegedly gave Brown, he offered campaign help in the form of robocalls, the indictment alleged.

In February 2012, Donagher directed one of his employees to make hundreds of thousands of robocalls to Cook County residents on behalf of Brown’s campaign, but he never received payment or issued an invoice to Brown or the campaign, the feds said.

Donagher later emailed two Illinois lobbyists in November of that year to ensure Penn Credit was getting an “equal share” of debt collection work from Brown’s office, according to the indictment. “Just a reminder that we made a sh–load of calls for [Dorothy]. Have you received all of the numbers we requested to make sure everything is equal?” he asked.

The next summer, Donagher again looked to compete with a rival debt collector for Brown’s attention, writing in an email to two of his employees and a lobbyist that he would “give as much plus a dollar” as the competitor had contributed to Brown’s campaign, the indictment alleged.

In 2014, an employee in Brown’s office allegedly thanked Donagher for underwriting her office’s Women’s History Month celebration. Donagher, according to the indictment, forwarded the email to his own employees and wrote, “I told her we are fans of [Dorothy]. We gotta stay ahead of [competitor debt collection company]!!”

Donagher faces five counts of federal program bribery and one count of conspiracy to commit federal program bribery. The bribery counts are punishable by up to 10 years in prison; the conspiracy count carries a penalty of up to five years.