Bounced by Democratic Party, Circuit Court clerk scrambles to stay in race, and enlists the help of her government employees to do so.
When the Cook County Democratic Party stripped away its endorsement of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown this fall amid revelations about a growing federal corruption probe, she lost a lot of organizational firepower – including party foot soldiers to collect signatures to get her on the ballot.
So Brown turned to another group to help her beleaguered re-election campaign: Her own government workforce.
The Better Government Association and FOX 32 found that at least a dozen – and perhaps up to 100 – Circuit Court employees ended up in the field in recent weeks, collecting the requisite 5,365 signatures of registered voters so her name could appear on the March 2016 primary ballot.
And these “petition circulators” weren’t just rank-and-file employees, according to copies of the signature sheets obtained by the BGA and FOX.
Some of Brown’s top lieutenants – many with six-figure salaries – appeared to be among them, though few would explain how that came to be, whether they felt pressured to gather signatures, or if any of the signatures were collected on county property or county time.
One of the names listed on a petition sheet as a circulator was Kelly Smeltzer – the name of one of Brown’s top in-house attorneys, being paid $111,000 a year.
Dorothy Brown image courtesy of the Sun-Times.
Reached on the phone Wednesday by a reporter, Smeltzer said, “I don’t have a comment on that,” then hung up.
Wasiu Fashina is Brown’s $119,000-a-year chief of staff. Somebody by that name also gathered signatures, records show. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
Somebody named Robbin Perkins also gathered signatures for Brown, whose chief human resources officer at the Circuit Court clerk’s office has the same name.
Reached by phone, Perkins told a reporter, “I don’t have a comment. Thank you. Bye-bye.”
Richard Ringfelt, chief deputy clerk at the Third Municipal District courthouse in Rolling Meadows, confirmed he was one of the petition circulators, but insisted nobody put the arm on him.
“I’ve always supported her as a candidate,” he said.
Brown’s spokeswoman Jalyne Strong said via email that nobody was pressured to volunteer, and that petitions weren’t circulated by Brown employees on county time.
“All U.S. citizens have the freedom of choice in their political activities,” said Strong.
Asked why she chose to pass petitions, Strong said, “It’s my prerogative.”
A federal grand jury has been investigating possible corruption at Brown’s office, including allegations that jobs and promotions were traded for money. Brown has denied wrongdoing but one of her lower-level employees was charged last month with lying to a grand jury. That employee allegedly loaned money to a meat company run by Brown and her husband.
In past BGA/FOX investigations, Brown has faced allegations that she pressured employees to donate to her campaign, and to special initiatives supposedly benefitting charity. She also faced criticism for trying to rope employees into a multilevel marketing effort, known as 5Linx, that she personally benefitted from.
Battered by ethical questions, Brown pledged several years ago to stop accepting campaign donations from her workers.
However, sources familiar with the Circuit Court clerk’s office said since that decree Brown’s campaign workers have continued to solicit Circuit Court clerk employees, sometimes asking that contributions be made in cash or in other people’s names to avoid detection. Donations over $150 must be reported by donor name to the Illinois State Board of Elections, and those records are accessible online to the public.
Two people – one a current Brown employee, the other a former employee – acknowledged to the BGA making donations through other people so Brown wouldn’t be detected collecting money from her workers.
Strong, Brown’s spokeswoman, said, “I have no knowledge of that.”
The sources said fundraising has also been going on in the Circuit Court clerk’s offices.
Accepting donations in other names – and politicking on government time – are violations of state law.
The federal investigation of Brown’s office has also had an impact on her outside campaign fundraising. Attorney John Fotopoulos held a small breakfast fundraiser for Brown a couple of months back, donating $3,000 to her campaign in the process, records show.
Fotopoulos said he asked Brown about her legal travails and she denied she was under scrutiny. He soon found out otherwise from the news and canceled his donation checks.
Fotopoulos wrote Brown an email saying: “As you know, I inquired regarding rumors that had surfaced pertaining to any criminal investigation involving you and/or your office and you indicated that there was no truth to the rumors. As an officer of the court, I can no longer support you in your efforts to be re-elected Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court.”
It was Brown’s reported lack of truthfulness on the same subject that led Democratic Party leaders to strip away their endorsement in October – and the accompanying financial and field support in the form of door knockers.
Brown then had to scramble to collect enough signatures before the Nov. 30 filing deadline. She ended up filing 2,315 petitions, most with multiple signatures, perhaps eight times more than the requisite 5,365 signatures, according to records and interviews.
But rivals are likely to challenge the authenticity of many of the signatures – meaning it’s not a sure thing she will end up on the ballot. Chicago Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), former Ald. Shirley Coleman (16th), attorney Jacob Meister and activist Tio Hardiman are also running in the Democratic primary.
The signatures must be of registered voters. But the BGA and FOX found numerous entries from Brown’s signature sheets that weren’t even actual people. Examples include a commercial real estate firm, a hotel, a tavern, a rug store, a dry cleaner and a liquor store.
Business owners contacted by reporters were surprised to learn their companies’ names had been used on the petitions, including Galleria Liquors in Old Town.
Store owner Benjamin Pourkhalili said, “I did not sign anything. I was not aware of it. I wasn’t very happy my name was there.”