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Watchdog looks at land deal involving Dorothy Brown’s husband

The Cook County inspector general’s office has launched an investigation into Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown in the wake of a Better Government Association/FOX 32 News report that raised questions about how she and her husband ended up with a $100,000 piece of property from a campaign fundraiser.

Benton Cook III and County Clerk Dorothy Brown leave a polling place in November 2016. File Photo. Brian Jackson/ For the Sun-Times
Benton Cook III and County Clerk Dorothy Brown leave a polling place in November 2016.
Sun-Times file photo

The in-house watchdog for Cook County government has launched an investigation into Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown in the wake of a Better Government Association/FOX 32 News report that raised questions about how she and her husband ended up with a $100,000 piece of property from a campaign fundraiser.

“The inspector general’s office is actively investigating the issues that were brought to light by FOX/BGA — all of the issues,” said Patrick Blanchard, who runs the office.

He declined to elaborate. The story reported in November by FOX and the BGA raised questions about whether Brown crossed an ethical — and a legal — line amid revelations that Brown’s husband was essentially given a commercial building by wealthy fundraiser and donor Naren Patel in 2011.

Brown and her consulting company later ended up on the title of the parcel, at 2201 S. Pulaski in Chicago, and in November 2012 Brown’s company sold the land for $100,000, public records show.

Whether the conveyance of the property to Brown’s husband, Benton Cook III, constituted a campaign donation, a gift or a true sale, it appears this should have been publicly disclosed by Brown — who, as an elected official, is subject to disclosure rules designed to prevent conflicts of interest and promote transparency, according to documents and interviews.

But the 2011 or 2012 transactions weren’t revealed on Brown’s campaign reports filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections, or her “statement of economic interest” on file with Cook County Clerk David Orr’s office. Violations of these rules typically bring no consequences, although fines are possible.

Either way, questions abound about why someone would hand over a potentially valuable piece of property to a politician.

Brown’s spokeswoman released this statement: “The Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County asserts that questions regarding any investigations conducted by the Office of the Cook County Inspector General are best addressed by the Cook County Inspector General.”

The spokeswoman added, by email: “Clerk Dorothy Brown knows that she has not violated any rules or laws.”

Patel, who has donated more than $85,000 to Brown’s campaign fund over the years, has at least one close relative working for Brown in the Circuit Clerk’s office.

Patel and his lawyer have said the nearly 100-year-old, single-story commercial building on Pulaski was given to Brown’s husband because it was dilapidated and not worth much, and Patel simply wanted to get rid of it. They said it was not intended as a political donation and Patel wanted nothing in return.

The Circuit Court clerk’s office is the repository for court records in Cook County — basically the bureaucratic arm of the court system. As the elected head of that agency, Brown has been the subject of considerable controversy.

The Circuit Court clerk’s office been criticized for gross inefficiencies — paper filings and lost records in a digital age — and Brown made news in 2010 when the BGA and FOX revealed her practice of allowing employees to wear jeans to work if they gave money to a charity fund.

The county’s inspector general investigated the “Jeans Day” program and found: “Although there are records of managers collecting and submitting funds to the accounting department, the [inspector general] could not verify that the managers submitted all the money collected from employees.”

Brown, a CPA and an attorney, has unsuccessfully run for Chicago mayor and Cook County Board president.

This story was written and reported by Robert Herguth and Patrick Rehkamp of the Better Government Association and Dane Placko of FOX 32 News.