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FBI: Ex-employee alleges Dorothy Brown picked up cash payoffs at bagman's home

Thursday, August 02, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Jason Meisner

FBI: Ex-employee alleges Dorothy Brown picked up cash payoffs at bagman's home

A federal judge has ruled that the FBI had probable cause to search the cellphone of a longtime top aide to Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown as part of a sweeping probe into pay-to-play allegations of corruption in Brown’s office.

In denying a motion to quash information seized from former associate clerk Beena Patel’s phone, U.S. District Judge Sarah Ellis revealed new details from a sealed 2015 FBI search warrant application, including allegations from a former employee that Brown personally picked up cash payoffs from employees at the home of her alleged “bagman.”

The former employee — identified only as Individual A — told agents that Brown was personally involved in the hiring of all 2,300 employees in the office and that Individual A resigned after learning that she was “expected to make monetary contributions” to Brown as part of her employment, Ellis wrote.

The same former employee also said in an FBI interview that employees who received promotions “either contributed money to (Brown’s) campaigns or were otherwise close to the Clerk,” and that “it was common knowledge” that Patel had paid for Brown’s vacation to India.

Those allegations, although vague, were “consistent with the alleged culture of improper benefits” in the office and gave the FBI probable cause to seize and search Patel’s phone, Ellis said in the 12-page ruling posted Tuesday.

Patel, a former associate clerk who at one point supervised close to 500 office employees, has pleaded not guilty to charges she lied on two separate occasions to a federal grand jury investigating corruption in Brown's office.

Brown, who earlier this year launched a long-shot bid for mayor, has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and has not been charged despite an investigation that has been underway for nearly five years.

READ MORE: Dorothy Brown brushes aside federal probe, announces run for Chicago mayor »

Brown’s criminal-defense attorney, Vadim Glozman, told the Tribune on Wednesday that Brown has been a loyal public servant for nearly two decades and that much of the information that’s come out about the ongoing corruption probe has been “sensationalized.”

“You have to take what these witnesses said (to the FBI) with a grain of salt,” Glozman said. He said he has not seen the 38-page FBI search warrant affidavit because it remains under seal.

Brown won a fifth term as clerk in 2016 even though the Cook County Democratic Party had dropped its endorsement of her after the federal investigation was disclosed.

She entered the crowded mayoral race in April, saying she wanted to create a "transformative, transparent and inclusive government."

Asked then about the ongoing investigation into her office, Brown said of law enforcement: "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."

A spokeswoman for Brown’s mayoral campaign had no comment Wednesday on Ellis’ ruling but in an email statement said Brown “urges the U.S. Attorney to charge the people with perjury who told the lies that started the entire investigation.”

Long known as a haven for patronage jobs, Brown's office is the official record-keeper for the county court system and has an annual operating budget of more than $100 million.

READ MORE: 'Going rate' to buy a job in Dorothy Brown's office? $10,000, employee tells feds »

The allegations of pay-to-play have focused on the large contingency of clerk's office employees descended from India. The Tribune has reported that Brown first came under investigation after the sale of a North Lawndale building owned by Patel's brother, Narendra, a west suburban businessman and longtime campaign donor to Brown who is now deceased.

In a filing earlier this year, federal prosecutors revealed that one former clerk’s office employee told investigators that the "going rate" to buy a job was $10,000, to be paid to Brown’s personal bagman.

Financial records appeared to back up the claims, including transactions showing the alleged bagman — identified as Employee One — paid $40,000 directly to Brown and a company she controlled, according to prosecutors. The clerk later deposited $30,000 of those funds into her campaign war chest, prosecutors alleged.

So far, the investigation has yielded only one conviction. In 2016, Sivasubramani Rajaram, a former clerk’s office employee, pleaded guilty to falsely testifying to the grand jury that he had not talked with Brown after his 2014 hiring.

Prosecutors alleged that to secure the job, Rajaram had paid a $15,000 bribe to Brown disguised as a loan to Goat Masters Corp., a goat meat supply company that Brown and her husband had recently founded.

Rajaram was sentenced last year to probation.

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @jmetr22b



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