The day after federal prosecutors said Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown received what they described as bribe money from an employee, Brown was collecting money in a different way – by selling political advice for nearly $200 a head.
Brown, who was elected last year to her fifth term as clerk despite a federal grand jury investigation of the hiring and promotion practices within her office, hosted a training seminar on a Saturday last month for people interested in running for public office.
For $175 a ticket, plus $19.95 for an optional handbook, the day-long event promised “instruction on every aspect of being a candidate as a whole,” according to a flyer for the event.
“I realized that a lot of people want to run for public office but they don’t really know what to do,” Brown said during the program. “I’m about the business of not being selfish but giving back, and that’s what this is all about.”
As part of a Better Government Association and FOX 32 investigation, a BGA reporter paid the fees and attended the first half of the seminar, which took place in a hotel conference room in the Illinois Medical District on Chicago’s West Side.
Among the eight other participants, whose names the BGA obtained either from a sign-in sheet or when they introduced themselves to the others in the room: a Cook County judge, one of Brown’s neighbors and two individuals with apparent ties to Brown’s office – a man named Christopher Hodges and a woman named Zoe Neely.
A Christopher Hodges has worked in the clerk’s office since 2004 and is a manager making $56,000 a year, according to 2016 payroll records. A Facebook profile page that identifies Hodges as an employee of Brown’s office has a photo of the same man who attended the seminar. The Facebook page also states Hodges is a “servant” at Brown’s church, King of Glory Tabernacle Church of God in Christ, on Chicago’s South Side.
Neely is identified on LinkedIn as Zalita Zoe Neely. Her mother is Madina Neely, who has been employed in the clerk’s office since 2008 and has worked as Brown’s scheduler, according to sources. According to payroll records, Madina Neely was an office assistant in 2015 making $37,000 a year but last year made $63,000 as a manager.
None of them could be reached for comment. Brown’s spokeswoman Jalyne Strong declined to answer questions about their employment or on the seminar as a whole.
Instead, Strong said in an emailed statement the seminar was “not a part of the operations” of the clerk’s office and that she had “no information about it.” She added that “any attendees would have had to learn about it independent of the clerk’s office.”
Experts contacted by the BGA questioned whether it’s appropriate for the clerk to accept money from her employees. Even though the event was open to the public and outside work hours, the experts said Brown opened herself up to the criticism that employees could feel obligated to participate since she is their boss.
“You want to make sure protections are in place to make sure they don’t feel pressure to be part of anything they don’t want to,” said Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “It’s a delicate relationship when it’s boss to employee.”
This isn’t the first time questions have been raised about Brown’s interactions with her employees.
The BGA and FOX 32 previously reported Brown had ties to the multi-level marketing company 5LINX and solicited her employees to join. The BGA and FOX 32 also found employees from the clerk’s office in 2015 circulated her re-election petitions. In 2010, the two media outlets uncovered a now-defunct fundraising practice in Brown’s office known as “Jeans Day” in which employees could wear jeans to work in exchange for cash that ultimately went unaccounted for.
What’s more, a federal grand jury had been investigating the hiring practices within the office.
On Feb. 17, the day before the seminar, the U.S. Attorney’s Office revealed Brown took a $15,000 loan — which prosecutors called a “bribe to obtain a job” — from a clerk’s office employee for a company called Goat Masters that’s owned by Brown and her husband, court records show. Vadim Glozman, an attorney at Edward M. Genson & Associates, the law firm representing Brown, said the money has been repaid, “definitely wasn’t a bribe” and had “nothing to do with getting any jobs.”
The clerk’s office employee, Sivasubramani Rajaram, was charged in 2015 with lying about the arrangement to a federal grand jury, which had been examining allegations of employees purchasing jobs and promotions in the clerk’s office.
Rajaram, who is no longer employed by the clerk’s office, was sentenced Monday to three years of probation. Neither Brown nor her husband has been accused of wrongdoing.
Despite the recent news coverage, which included front-page stories in both the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune on the day of her seminar, Brown made no mention of the situation during the seminar, at least not in the first half of the program.
Instead, Brown talked about the basics of running a campaign, including how to set up an organizing committee and file petitions, as well as how to shake hands and dress appropriately.
“You definitely do not go to the store with rollers in your head and a scarf on your head if you’re a woman,” she said. “You want to always dress up, even on Saturdays.”
She recommended ways to get involved in the community and meet people, particularly emphasizing churches as a good starting place to gain supporters and spread your message. She said candidates should start attending services first once a month and then more frequently as the election approaches, eventually every Sunday.
“Churches have become very, very integral in getting people elected,” Brown said.
Brown also warned people of sabotage on several occasions, saying volunteers or other members of your political campaign could be working for or bought out by an opponent. Even printing companies can be “political,” Brown said, claiming that one time a printing firm printed the wrong address on petitions, which could have gotten her thrown off the ballot if she hadn’t caught the error.
“It’s a dirty game,” she said. “It can either lift you up or tear you down.”
The BGA reporter paid for the training with a credit card via PayPal and the fees appear to go to a company called “Candidates360,” although there is no business registered by that name with the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office or the Cook County Clerk’s Office.
Brown, meanwhile, recently made payments to her attorneys. Her campaign paid Genson’s firm $3,500 in December for legal fees, according to state campaign finance records.
Brown did not return phone calls for this story.
One comment she made during the training program about handling the media may explain why:
“You don’t want to go on camera if there’s something negative,” Brown said. “You stick your press spokesperson out there for the negative things.”