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Happy birthday, Dorothy!

Thursday, September 11, 2008
Chicago Tribune

What do you give a boss who has everything? There's no agonizing about a birthday gift when you work for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown. She'll be delighted with a simple gathering at the Hotel Allegro, a few choruses of "Happy Birthday To You" and a minimum campaign donation of $125 per person.

For $1,000, you can be listed on her birthday card as a "friend." For $25,000, you can go "platinum." Add a few heartfelt words to the memory book for as little as $10, or go ahead and gush for up to $500.

The Sept. 30 party is being hosted by "The X Company," made up almost entirely of clerk's office employees earning $62,000 to $127,000 a year. Most of them have contributed to Brown's previous campaigns, according to state records. But this year they wanted to do something special—it's the Big 5-5, after all—so they're throwing a fundraiser to support the birthday girl's bid for re-election. Come help the boss blow out her candles, and don't forget your checkbook! Regrets only, dear colleagues.

This reminds us of the 2004 election cycle, when some managers in the clerk's office complained that they were routinely given fundraising tickets to sell. If they couldn't unload them on subordinates or lawyers doing business with the office, they would purchase the tickets themselves, they said. Brown said her employees were never pressured to help raise money for her campaign.

The X Company members say they organized this year's birthday bash on their own initiative. And why wouldn't they? Though it serves one of the largest unified court systems in the world, with 2.4 million cases filed every year, the Cook County Circuit Court clerk's office is an island of insouciant ennui in a sea of hyperventilating strivers. It's a quaint operation that runs on technology almost as old as the clerk —Remember microfiche? Remember DOS?—and the line of lawyers waiting to be helped is never long enough to disrupt a chatty encounter with a co-worker. How many people are lucky enough to have that kind of work environment?

The clerk's Web site boasts of bringing the office into the 21st Century—the site can be accessed at the easy- to-remember URL—but there's been no serious attempt to modernize the operation, largely because that would permit it to be run with fewer employees. Who would throw the birthday parties then?

Though it may have run afoul of state law by failing to register as a political committee, the X Company points out that its party is "in complete compliance with the county ethics ordinance," as if that's the same thing as behaving ethically. Brown couldn't bring herself to say it, so we will: Thanks, but you shouldn't have.

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