Despite Corruption Investigation, Clerk Launches Bid for Chicago Mayor
By Bill Ruthhart
Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown on Sunday brushed aside a long-running corruption investigation into her office and announced she would run for mayor next year to create a "transformative, transparent and inclusive government."
With Carl Carlton's 1981 R&B hit "She's a Bad Mama Jama" blaring from the speakers in a small room at the Hilton Chicago, Brown confidently strode to the podium to deliver a five-minute speech that made no allusion to the federal heat she has faced for four years. Instead, Brown unveiled her campaign slogan, "Hope for All Chicagoans," by vowing to correct what she said are systemic inequities where some parts of the city are not treated as well as others.
"The city of Chicago spans over 228 square miles, with over 200 neighborhoods and 77 communities, and it is often said that Chicago is a world-class city," Brown said before a room filled with about 100 supporters. "Well, I say in order for Chicago to be truly a world-class city, we must have world-class blocks, world-class neighborhoods and world-class communities. Then and only then will Chicago be a world-class city for all Chicagoans."
Brown did not mention by name Mayor Rahm Emanuel or the other six declared candidates. However, Brown did make an indirect reference to gun violence that has spiked on Emanuel's watch and the struggles of the Chicago Police Department, which was the subject of a federal civil rights investigation following the Laquan McDonald police shooting that resulted in white Officer Jason Van Dyke eventually being charged with murder in the 2014 death of the African-American teenager.
"I will work towards a Chicago where all communities are clean, safe and violence-free. I will work towards a Chicago where every Chicagoan has hope, and because of that hope, we're not known around the world for crime and police brutality," Brown said. "But rather, we're known around the world as a respected city and as a world-class city where all of our citizens come first."
Brown enters the February 2019 mayoral election race as the focus of a federal investigation centered on bribes-for-jobs allegations in her county office, and her decision to run has come as a shock in Chicago political circles. Brown repeatedly has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged, but federal prosecutors have alleged she took a $15,000 bribe disguised as a business loan from a man seeking a job with her office.
While Brown did not bring up the investigation in her prepared remarks, two of the half-dozen supporters who introduced her made reference to the probe.
"She's an honest woman. She does a job that she gets no respect for, not by the media, not by the party and she's constantly being blasted for no reason at all," longtime supporter Jim Wirkus told the crowd. "If someone else did this, it would be OK. When Dorothy Brown does it, it isn't, and that's an injustice. I believe if she becomes mayor, she'll correct the injustices for all people."
After her speech, Brown was asked by a reporter why Chicagoans should trust her, given the ongoing investigation.
"I'm happy that you asked that question, because I respect law enforcement. And anytime someone comes and has a complaint, it's their duty to look into it, whether it's true or false -- as these are false," Brown said. "I respect that, but the citizens of Chicago and Cook County have elected me five times. They trust me. I am a proven leader."
Supporters roared with approval.
A onetime aide and another onetime employee in her office have been indicted in connection with the probe. One pleaded guilty to lying to a grand jury and did not cooperate with authorities, while a second is still fighting charges of lying to a grand jury about pay-to-play allegations in Brown's office.
The Chicago Tribune first reported in May 2014 that the state's attorney was looking into a land deal that netted Brown and husband Benton Cook III tens of thousands of dollars with no money down. The husband got a North Lawndale building for free from a longtime Brown campaign donor. Brown quickly became co-owner, and her company sold the parcel for $100,000 to a Frankfort real estate developer who'd long had his eye on it.
The county probe grew into a federal investigation, sources told the Tribune. In October 2015, the FBI seized Brown's cellphone. The federal probe morphed into more widespread pay-to-play allegations, leading to the indictment and eventual conviction of former Circuit Court employee Sivasubramani Rajaram for lying to a grand jury investigating "possible criminal violations in connection with the purchasing of jobs and promotions" in Brown's office.
Brown's office rehired Rajaram in September 2014, just weeks after he purportedly lent $15,000 to a company controlled by Cook. Rajaram admitted to falsely telling a grand jury that he had not spoken to Brown after his rehiring even though text messages on Brown's cellphone indicated otherwise.
Before Rajaram's sentencing, federal prosecutors alleged in February 2017 that the $15,000 business loan was actually a bribe, while Brown maintained it was a legitimate loan. Although prosecutors recommended a 15-month prison term, Rajaram was sentenced to three years of probation.
Then in May 2017, Beena Patel, a onetime top aide to Brown and sister of the political donor in the land deal that started the probe, was indicted on charges she lied to a grand jury when asked in two separate appearances about pay-to-play allegations in the clerk's office.
A court filing in the case against Patel stated that a Brown employee told federal investigators that $10,000 was the "going rate" to buy a job in the circuit clerk's office. Another employee said in an FBI interview that it was well-known that showering gifts on Brown could earn you a promotion. Patel continues to fight the charge.
Asked Sunday whether the investigation made her think twice about running for mayor, Brown said she "gave it very careful consideration" before touting herself as a known political commodity, the sole African-American woman in the contest, and a candidate with high name ID among voters.
Brown has run for mayor before, losing badly to Richard M. Daley even as the then-mayor was viewed as potentially vulnerable because of the Hired Truck scandal. Brown only won about 20 percent of the vote in that election. When asked what would be different this time around, she said voters know her even better now.
"Yes, I did (lose), but at that time, I don't think the citizens of Chicago really knew the real Dorothy Brown," she said. "We have a good, proven track record ... and I believe the citizens of Chicago know they made a mistake in 2007."
Brown joins an ever-growing field that includes Emanuel, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, former police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, businessman Willie Wilson, Chicago principals association president Troy LaRaviere, tech entrepreneur Neal Sales-Griffin and activist Ja'Mal Green. To compete, Brown acknowledged she'll need to do well in fundraising.
Lately, the clerk hasn't collected much in the way of campaign cash, with her political fund totaling about $8,000 after a recent pair of $2,000 contributions. Perhaps that's why Brown called her pastor to the podium to encourage those in attendance to fill the envelopes that had been distributed with cash, checks or their credit card information.
"It's good to say, 'Rah, rah, rah,' but we need 'check, check, check,' " said Pastor Jeffrey D. Hodges of the King Glory Tabernacle Church of God in Christ. "Dorothy needs our checks, checks, checks to fund a quality campaign that reflects the candidate."
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