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Circuit clerk b-day bash doubles as fundraiser starring employees

Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Dozens of employees of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown are planning a 55th birthday bash for their boss in a boutique hotel in the Loop later this month—with the aim of raising thousands of dollars for her campaign fund.

The minimum donation to attend the Sept. 30 party in the Hotel Allegro is $125, but supporters can become sponsors with a minimum donation of $1,000 at the "friend" level and a maximum gift of $25,000 for the "platinum" level, according to Brown's campaign fund. Celebrants also are invited to spend from $10 to $500 to buy "a celebratory message in the souvenir book."

All of this is being arranged by a group called "The X Company," according to mailed solicitations and the Friends of Dorothy Brown campaign fund Web site. Most of 37 X Company leaders and members listed on its letterhead have the same names as Circuit Court clerk employees who are listed on the county payroll and make between $62,000 and $127,000 a year.

Brown, who has previously denied allegations by former employees that she pressured them to support her campaign, demurred when asked about the latest fundraiser.

"The elected officials cannot pressure employees in any way to be involved," Brown said Tuesday. "But the employees are free to do whatever they want in any way on their own initiative."

The involvement of employees raises ethical questions, said Cynthia Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

"I think the problem is the sense that employees feel they may have to participate in this," she said. "It appears and may in fact feel by some employees to be coercive."

Brown referred questions about X Company to the group's members and her campaign committee. Associate Circuit Clerk Eduna Wilks, one of three X Company "chairs," declined to answer questions. Laura Morgan, the chairman of Brown's campaign fund, later issued a written statement on behalf of the X Company.

"We appreciate the hard work and commitment that Dorothy Brown has demonstrated," it said. "Therefore, we voluntarily on an individual basis, if we desire, support her... We are in complete compliance with the county ethics ordinance."

Brown, a Democrat first elected to her post in 2000, faces Republican Diane Shapiro and Paloma Andrade of the Green Party in the November election.

As of June 30, Brown had more than $76,000 available in her campaign fund, but her debt of $116,000 eclipsed her cash after she lost a bid last year to unseat Mayor Richard Daley.

Richard Means, a campaign-finance attorney, said an organization that raises at least $3,000 for a candidate has 10 days to register with the state as a political committee. As of Tuesday, the X Company had not registered, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections' Web site.

Letters of solicitation sent out by X Company are dated Aug. 8. Among specific questions not answered by Brown’s supporters were when the X Company was formed and how much it had raised.

On Brown's campaign-fund Web site, the X Company describes itself as "a committee of friends and co-workers" of Brown.

A check of state records shows that the 33 people listed as X Company members or officials who have the same names as circuit clerk employees have donated more than $34,000 to Brown’s campaign fund since 2000.

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