Shaw: Patronage-laden Cook office may get more money to waste
By Andy Shaw Better Government Association January 7, 2014 8:54PM
Andy Shaw is president and chief executive officer of the Better Government Association.
Updated: February 9, 2014 6:39AM
Dorothy Brown’s 13-year reign as Cook County Circuit Court clerk gets mixed reviews, but two things are pretty evident: She’s bold and politically connected.
Bold enough to push legislation in Springfield that would raise about $13 million a year by adding $20 to the county’s per-case filing fee, despite ongoing questions by the Better Government Association and other watchdogs about piles of patronage, forgotten files and curious contracts and contacts in Brown’s office.
And connected enough to get the law passed. It’s now awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature.
But a curious thing happened along the way — the influential 22,000-member Chicago Bar Association, which traditionally opposes legislation that would raise filing costs, didn’t take a position on the bill.
Cook County already has among the highest court filing fees in the country — lawyers constantly grumble about that, and about the bumbling bureaucracy that maintains and processes court records — so it’s fair to suggest that this fee increase would enable Brown to throw good money after bad.
So where was the bar association?
“Literally, we dropped the ball on this, and I’m not sure why,” its executive director, Terry Murphy, said. “We missed this bill.”
Now, after questions from the BGA, Murphy says he will urge Quinn to veto it. Even if the governor signs it, the Cook County Board has to OK the fee hike before it takes effect, and that’s where it gets more curious.
“Our filing fees are already too high,” county Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, said. “We’re pricing the middle class out of going to court.”
But Suffredin won’t be able to vote on the higher fee because of a key conflict of interest. He’s the lobbyist for the Chicago Bar Association. Huh? Shouldn’t he have known about Brown’s bill and alerted his client?
Suffredin said no — he gets involved with bills only after the bar group decides whether to take a position, not before, and Murphy confirmed that protocol.
Sounds odd, but there’s more in this tightly wound world of politics and the courts.
Fred Moody, from House Speaker Mike Madigan’s political organization, works in Brown’s office, and with Madigan’s support, Brown’s bill sailed through the House in early 2013. Moody declined to comment, but a Madigan spokesman said “we have supporters in just about every office, so what difference does it make?”
Then there’s Al Levin, a friend of Suffredin, who works as Brown’s director of intergovernmental affairs. If Brown’s office is pushing a fee increase, Levin is making the case.
Levin also has a side business that helps candidates collect signatures on nominating petitions, and Suffredin recently sent a couple of judicial candidates his way.
“There are no secret relationships here,” Levin said. “Nobody plays ‘hide the ball’ for anybody else’s benefit. It’s all open, it’s all aboveboard.”
But he won’t tell us who passed the petitions for the judge candidates or how much he made on the deal.
Suffredin thinks the foot soldiers came from Levin’s former employer, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 399, which has given more than $80,000 to Brown’s campaign fund since 2000. The union didn’t return our phone calls seeking confirmation.
For its part, the Chicago Bar Association has no qualms about Suffredin.
“Larry is probably the best, most ethical representative in the state of Illinois,” Murphy said.
As for Brown’s push to raise the filing fee, some of the money would go to automate court records, which is long overdue. But Brown hasn’t ruled out hiring more staff, which is troubling, given the chronic inefficiency of her office, including employees who sit around chatting while long lines form at counters.
So regardless of what’s going on behind the scenes, Quinn and the Cook County Board should be skeptical about letting Brown have millions of additional dollars until she starts running her office more efficiently.
She may be bold and connected, but from this watchdog’s vantage point, that’s not enough to warrant additional tax dollars.
Andy Shaw is president and chief executive of the Better Government Association.