Employees of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown have pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into her campaign coffers since she first ran for office a dozen years ago, public records show.
Brown continues to accept the donations despite serving in an era when many politicians have sworn off taking money from their workers. The amount tops $315,000, but the tally is likely much higher. Brown’s campaign finance records are incomplete, and she doesn’t disclose many smaller contributions that don’t have to be itemized.
The practice is drawing fire from Ald. Ricardo Munoz, Brown’s opponent in Democratic primary Tuesday. Munoz, who held a news conference on ethics Tuesday, has pledged not to take contributions from court clerk employees or companies doing business with the office, saying it’s part of his plan to “eliminate corruption in the clerk’s office.”
Brown said she will continue to accept donations from her workers. She faulted Munoz for accepting tens of thousands of dollars from businesses and lawyers seeking zoning changes and liquor permits in his 22nd Ward.
“My opponent says one thing, but it sounds like deceiving and receiving to me,” Brown said.
Munoz contends there’s “a fundamental difference” between an alderman accepting contributions from people who need zoning changes — even though they typically require the approval of the local alderman — and the court clerk accepting funds from employees and contractors her office oversees.
“How can you hold someone accountable when you are asking them for financial contributions for your campaign?” he asked.
Brown said employees are free to give to her campaign, or not, without fear of it affecting their employment status. She added that she complies with legal limits on contributions from contractors.
Illinois political culture on officeholders collecting campaign donations from employees changed in the wake of ex-Gov. George Ryan‘s licenses-for-bribes scandal. Former Mayor Richard M. Daley eventually banned contributions from employees and contractors, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel follows the same practice. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle doesn’t accept employee contributions.
“In the past 15 to 20 years, most have walked away from that and said they would not do it,” said David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
Accepting them can leave the impression, right or wrong, “that a condition of holding a job is giving to a politician,” Morrison said. “That’s illegal. It’s unconstitutional. It’s immoral.”
During her first three years in office, Brown took more than $226,000 from her employees, according to a 2004 report by then-Inspector General Joseph Price.
Since then, employees have given at least $89,000 to Brown, according to campaign finance records, payroll records and interviews.
But Brown’s campaign filings don’t always identify when contributors work for her.
Take the case of Wasiu Fashina, who has donated $7,660 to Brown. Campaign disclosures don’t list Fashina’s job, stating only that a “good faith effort” was made to identify his occupation. Fashina is Brown’s chief financial officer.
Attempts to cross-check the list of Brown’s campaign donors with a list of employees proved difficult. The Tribune requested ZIP code information for county employees under the state open records law, but the county has denied those requests.
A comparison of campaign donation reports and county payroll records shows that 333 contributors have the same names as current and former Brown workers. That comparison suggests employees could have given as much as $115,000 more to Brown’s political fund.
In addition, politicians are not required to list contributors who gave less than $150 in a year. Several current and former Brown employees have told the Tribune they regularly made such contributions after being solicited.
The Tribune also found more than $75,000 in contributions from relatives of workers in Brown’s office.
Munoz also has criticized Brown for taking $21,500 from the company that runs the circuit clerk office’s limited electronic filing system and its owners.
On-Line Information Systems has handled 2,838 filings — a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of civil case motions filed each year — since Brown hired the firm nearly three years ago.
Brown and the firm say they are waiting for the Illinois Supreme Court‘s go-ahead to expand the program — nearly a year after Brown mistakenly announced that her office had the OK.
One of the key criteria is “fees that are reasonable and in the public interest,” said Joseph Tybor, a Supreme Court spokesman. Cook County’s chief judge also must sign off.
The financial setup under Brown’s deal would prove more costly to those who use it than e-filing systems elsewhere.
Nearly all case filings carry a filing fee of $4.95 and a credit card fee of at least $1. The company keeps about a third of the $4.95 fee, paying a portion to a minority subcontractor. The other two-thirds goes to the county. If the county fully expanded e-filing, millions of dollars would flow to Brown’s office and On-Line Information Systems.
By contrast, there is no extra cost to file electronically in DuPage County, where 74,850 documents were handled that way last year alone, about 74 percent of civil cases. The county pays less than $10,000 a year to i2File Corp. to handle the filings.
Brown counters Munoz’s criticism on campaign contributions by pointing to the alderman’s campaign donations from a utility company that recently agreed to shutter its pollution-spewing power plants in Chicago.
Munoz said the $35,475 his campaign fund received from Midwest Generation, which owns the coal-fired Crawford power plant in the Little Village neighborhood he represents, did not stop him from co-sponsoring an ordinance that could have forced it to shut down operations.
As that threat lurked in the background, Emanuel hammered out a deal with Midwest under which it will close Crawford by the end of 2014.