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Dorothy Brown won’t seek reelection

Brown, clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, said her decision to bow out of the 2020 race has nothing to do with a growing field of challengers or a federal investigation of alleged job- and promotion-selling in her office.

Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown in 2018.
Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown
Sun-Times file photo

Dorothy Brown, the longtime clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, has decided not to seek reelection next year as she continues to be dogged by controversy and a growing number of challengers.

Brown’s decision not to run closes an almost 20-year chapter for the clerk who assumed office in December 2000.

Brown, 65, said Wednesday her decision to serve out her current term and retire from politics at the end of 2020 has nothing at all to do with the four Democratic challengers who have lined up against her.

Although her campaign fund is virtually empty, Brown said she’s convinced she would have won reelection with help from a devoted church-based constituency that has never left her side.

“I feel very confident . . . that I would definitely win the election without a shadow of a doubt. This past Saturday when I was in the Bud Billiken parade, I was cheered like a rock star. I have great, solid foundational support. I had no apprehension about any of the challengers,” Brown said.

“It’s just that, it’s a sound footing that I’m on because I do have the 20 years [that will give her a maximum pension]. So, now I can just move on and do even more and go to the next level with helping in the community as well as using my skills from a consulting standpoint. I’m an operations efficiency expert. I’d like to do some of that in even larger arenas.”

Brown scoffed at speculation that her decision not to run, first reported by Politico, may be part of a deal with the feds to avoid prosecution as part of the six-year-old federal investigation of alleged job- and promotion-selling in her Circuit Court Court clerk’s office.

A former Brown employee has told federal investigators the “going rate” for a job in the clerk’s office was about $10,000.

“I terminated a lot of people when I took office who hated the fact that I terminated them and have worked relentlessly over the years to find a way to take me down,” she said.

“But my best defense was a good offense. That was to operate at the highest of integrity throughout my administration. That’s what I’ve done.”

Is Brown confident that she is out of the woods with the feds?

“I feel that I’ve never been in the woods,” she said.

But she quickly added, “I’ve never seen a situation where the federal government has stood up anywhere and said, `This is over.’ I’ve never seen that occur. So, I don’t really expect them to ever make that kind of statement. I just live my life knowing that I’ve done things at the utmost and highest levels of integrity.”

After living under a cloud for six long years, Brown said she is convinced “race” played at least some role in the allegations against her.

“They just despise the fact that I won . . . It’s just like those white supremacists. White supremacy, racism — all of that. You cannot change a person’s heart. All you can do is be your best self,” she said.

The federal investigation isn’t the only cloud hanging over Brown.

So are the gifts and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions she has accepted over the years from employees of the clerk’s office and members of their families.

Two former employees in the clerk’s office have been convicted as part of the probe. Sivasubramani Rajaram, who feds say bought his job in the office with a $15,000 “loan” to a company tied to Brown and her husband, was sentenced to three years of probation in 2017.

Beena Patel, a former top aide, was convicted of making false statements to a grand jury investigating pay-to-play schemes in Brown’s office in April and will be sentenced in November.

There was also her infamous and long-since-reversed policy of charging her employees for the privilege of wearing jeans to work.

Still, Brown said she has “no regrets” about how she has conducted herself in office.

“We all make mistakes . . . We all have things we wish we could do over. We can’t do `em over. We can’t cry over spilled milk or anything of that nature. We just have to continue to operate at the highest of integrity. That’s what I did,” she said.

Last year, Brown mounted a brief mayoral campaign, only to have a petition challenge knock her off the ballot. She then put her support behind Amara Enyia, who finished with just over 8% of the vote.

The retiring clerk said she has not yet decided to endorse a successor. But she made it clear that she intends to remain active in politics.

“It’s not just church-based constituents that support me. I have a broad base of constituents that support me. People listen to me. People trust me. My voice is a powerful voice in politics,” she said.

“I keep my word. I’ve always kept my word. I’ve worked very hard. I’ve done a lot of things in the office and in the community. People see me as a person of integrity and they trust me.”

She’s also made bids for other offices like treasurer in 1999 and for mayor in 2007 and 2019.

Brown came under federal scrutiny in 2015 when federal investigators focused on allegations of job selling in her office. She has not been charged with any wrongdoing, though a former top aide was convicted earlier this year.

The investigation and seizure of Brown’s county cellphone led to the clerk being dumped from the Cook County Democratic Party’s slate of candidates. They put up 8th Ward Ald. Michelle Harris against her. Brown sailed to reelection anyway.

This election, challengers already were lining up against Brown. In a statement, Mariyana Spyropoulos, a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner, said Brown had “lost the public’s trust.”

“The person charged with maintaining a smooth and efficient court system should not be under federal investigation. We should all agree that on that her retirement from public office is good for the public and I wish her well,” Spyropoulos’ statement reads in part.

In a statement, lawyer Jacob Meister called Brown’s office “a patronage den and bureaucratic disaster of lost paperwork and dinosaur age technology” and said the office needs to be transformed “both operationally and ethically.”

“The Democratic Party needs to seize this opportunity to offer the voters a candidate that is the most qualified to reform the office and is absolutely free from ethical questions and pay-to-play politics,” his statement reads in part. “Unfortunately, instead of heeding the clear message sent by voters who elected reformers Fritz Kaegi and Lori Lightfoot, many of the leaders of the Cook County Democratic Party are headed towards slating yet another ethically bankrupt candidate to head the Clerk’s office.”

That’s a shot at Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Michael Cabonargi, who is also running and whom Meister has accused of taking campaign contributions from property tax lawyers.

Cabonargi’s campaign spokesman said in a statement “Commissioner Cabonargi’s quest to be the Circuit Court Clerk was never about Dorothy Brown. It’s always been about his vision for a more accessible, efficient and ethically sound governmental office the people of Cook County could be proud of.”

State Sen. Iris Martinez is also seeking the party’s endorsement in the race for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk. The party’s pick is set to be announced Friday.