Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown’s husband has been hit with a federal subpoena asking him to appear before a grand jury as part of an investigation into a state anti-violence program.
A source with knowledge of the investigation told the Chicago Sun-Times that the subpoena from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Springfield is directed at Benton Cook III.
It’s a sign that federal authorities, who already have requested documents from two state agencies regarding Gov. Pat Quinn’s troubled Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, are taking a closer look at Cook’s role in receiving grant money from the program.
It’s the second, ongoing probe into Cook that is also looking at how monies were dispensed from the $54 million anti-violence program.
The other is a state grand jury investigation that is in part looking at a piece of property Cook and Brown received for free from a Brown political donor, then sold for $100,000.
That investigation is being handled out of the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. A key player in the land investigation told the Sun-Times he testified before a Cook County grand jury in late January. In recent weeks, Alvarez’s office has requested documents from two state agencies — a sign its probe has expanded since the initial focus on the property transaction, sources say.
Brown has said she and her husband did not engage in any wrongdoing. On Tuesday, her office would not comment on questions about a subpoena.
“Your questions are not related to the operations of the Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County; therefore, I have nothing to add,” said Brown office spokeswoman Jalyne R. Strong.
Cook has hired veteran criminal defense attorney Ed Genson, who has described Cook as a “fall guy” for a troubled state initiative.
Cook was paid more than $146,000 in salary and fringe benefits from Neighborhood Recovery Initiative grant funds, accounting for 7 percent of the total $2.1 state allotment to combat violence in the West Garfield Park neighborhood. Cook oversaw several subcontractors, including his own non-profit, which took in more than $3,300 in anti-violence grant money. The Sun-Times has previously reported that Cook is a felon, raising questions over how he qualified to oversee money in the program.
The investigations from both the state’s attorney’s office and federal authorities are beginning to cross paths as each seeks to dig into how money was doled out of the anti-violence program. Typically, law enforcement agencies will eventually coordinate investigations or carve out different portions depending on what makes sense for the case.
The man who purchased the property from Brown and Cook — developer Musa Tadros — told the Sun-Times on Tuesday that he paid the couple $100,000, then spent another $60,000 to tear down a building on the property. Tadros said as part of the deal with the couple, he made available a space in his nearby shopping center, rent-free for one year, to allow them to build it out. Tadros said Cook sought to open a Halal meat business and had been working with his brother on renovations.
Sometime in January, Tadros said a pipe burst in the space, and he was desperately trying to reach Cook.
Unsuccessful, he finally got through to Brown, he said.
“I talked to Dorothy because Benton wouldn’t answer his phone. I left him numerous messages,” Tadros said. “I wasn’t going to let him stay in there and not pay me rent. She ended up calling me and said: ‘you know what, we’re not going to open.’
“They didn’t turn the heat on. We had busted pipes. … On top of not getting rent, I have water damage, and I have to pay,” he said.
The ongoing probes into the now-scrapped anti-violence program are worrisome for Quinn, who signed off on the initiative one month before his 2010 election win over Republican state Sen. Bill Brady. Quinn is now locked in a heated race against multi-millionaire businessman Bruce Rauner of Winnetka.
In February, Auditor General William Holland outlined “pervasive” mismanagement, questionable contracting and, in some instances, non-existent accounting for how the state dollars were spent in Quinn’s program.