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Dorothy Brown says she won't take cash from county employees
Cook County Circuit Court clerk sees nothing wrong with the gifts but stops it when Tribune asks about it

Friday, June 05, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Dorothy Brown's campaign literature says she puts "professionalism over politics," but the veteran Cook County Circuit Court clerk has long accepted annual cash gifts from her employees -- a relic of Illinois' political patronage system that raises questions about coercion.

Brown says employees are not pressured to give and says the practice is not banned by law or local ethics rules. But after the Tribune asked who she takes gifts from and how she reports it on her taxes, Brown said this week that she would stop.

The three-term clerk -- who is mulling a run for County Board president -- defended accepting workers' cash gifts, even at time when such practices are under increasing scrutiny amid a focus on government ethics.

Buying a birthday cake or a token gift is one thing, but giving cash is another, said Cynthia Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. 

"There is a level at which gifts are not appropriate," Canary said. "I think it's very troublesome if people feel pressured to give."

A former employee who has complained in the past about politics in the clerk's office said employees feared their careers were in jeopardy if they didn't donate toward yearly birthday gifts for Brown.

"If you didn't contribute, you were treated differently than other people who did," said Barbara Nicosia, a former union leader who retired in 2002 after more than 30 years in the office and repeatedly sparred with Brown. "Eventually, you paid for it."

Brown disputes the notion that employees are under pressure to give.

"If people want to give to me, they can," she said when asked about her practice during an appearance last week at the Tribune editorial board. "If they don't, they don't. And, so, we're completely within the ethics law."

Current and former employees said Brown accepted the gifts, which sometimes total thousands of dollars, for many years as presents at birthday parties organized by top-level employees and her campaign fund.

Economic disclosure statements from 2004 to 2009 indicate Brown received birthday gifts with a value of at least $500 from employees in each of those years, but they don't list either the individuals who gave or the total amount. For an even longer period, since 2002, she also has accepted Christmas gifts from employees who are only listed as "senior staff," the statements indicate.

Unlike campaign contributions, public officials are not required to provide the same level of detail about gifts from employees or others.

Brown said she declares the presents as income on her federal income tax forms. But she declined to release those documents, saying they are "personal and private," or say how much money she has received.

When told this week that the Tribune would publish a story on the issue, Brown issued this statement: "Although these birthday gifts are permissible by ethics laws, I have decided to no longer permit employees to continue this practice."

Brown was first elected in 2000 and has since run two successful re-election campaigns, but she was soundly defeated by Mayor Richard Daley when she sought his office in 2007.

Government employees giving presents to their political bosses in Chicago and Springfield is nothing new, as Brown notes, but the practice was portrayed in a harsh light during former Gov. George Ryan's corruption trial.

The federal jury that convicted Ryan of corruption heard evidence that Ryan received thousands of dollars in Christmas gifts from employees. The Tribune later reported that Mayor Richard Daley also has received Christmas gifts, though not cash, from top aides.

Brown, who is paid $105,000 a year, isn't the first court clerk to accept workers' cash gifts, Nicosia said.

"It's no different than her predecessors," she said.

The Tribune reported last fall that top-level circuit clerk employees and Brown's campaign organization put together a 55th birthday celebration for Brown at a downtown hotel. Documents indicate that money was raised by selling ads in a "souvenir book" for the party, as had been done in previous years.

In a souvenir book from a previous party obtained by the Tribune, dozens of ads were purchased by hundreds of employees, friends of those employees and companies with county contracts worth millions of dollars. Brown said any contributions from county contractors were either returned or put into her campaign fund.

The county ethics ordinance allows officials to accept gifts from employees, as well as campaign contributions of up to $3,000 a year from county contractors in an election year and $1,500 in a non-election year.

Any leftover funds after printing and distributing this year's book were to go to Brown, according to a Sept. 30 letter from a Brown employee to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Tony Morgando, deputy director of campaign finance at the state Board of Elections, said that based on the letter, his agency has no further interest in the matter.

"I think the issue now is between her and the IRS."

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