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Gifting the boss

Monday, June 08, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Chicago Tribune editorial staff

Let's begin by congratulating Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown for her decision to stop accepting cash gifts from employees. Though she long defended the practice as perfectly legal (sad but true) and completely voluntary (unlikely), Brown now acknowledges that at the very least, it looks bad.

She still won't tell us how much those gifts were worth, though. That looks worse.

Appearances are everything as Brown mulls a run for Cook County Board president and tries to convince voters that the operations of her office have improved. The last thing she needs is a replay of last September's embarrassing coverage of her 55th birthday celebration at the Hotel Allegro. Employees groused privately that their "invitations" included a request for a minimum $125 campaign contribution. The bash was organized by a group called "The X Company," whose members are mostly senior staffers in the clerk's office. In addition to being dinged for a campaign contribution, employees were offered the opportunity to add their personal birthday wishes to a souvenir book -- for a price. Proceeds from the book were given to Brown as a gift.

Brown insisted employees were not pressured to attend or contribute. In a recent meeting with the Tribune editorial board, she repeated that assertion: "If people want to give to me they can. If they don't, they don't."

We thought that was a stretch, and said so. If you and your checkbook were invited to your boss' birthday party, wouldn't you feel obliged to show up, pen in hand? Brown conceded that yes, it might be so.

We'd like to think that led to her change of heart about accepting cash gifts, but the timing of the decision suggests otherwise. The ban came only after Tribune reporter Hal Dardick informed Brown he was doing a story on the issue.

How much did Brown get from employees? She still won't say, and neither does her economic disclosure statement. Filings dating back to 2004 note that she received gifts greater than $500 from employees each year, but individual donors and amounts aren't listed. That information isn't required, and if you find that surprising you've forgotten where you live.

The gifts must be claimed as income on federal tax returns, though, so it would be a simple thing for Brown to disclose to voters, something she refuses to do. Going forward, however, she says she won't accept cash gifts.

We'd like to see her go further -- by instructing senior staffers to lay off campaign fundraising in the workplace, for example. That may be within the bounds of the county's ethics ordinance, but it shouldn't be.

Illinois politicians have a long history of strong-arming employees to provide cash and campaign work. Employees who complain about being pressured to donate to Brown, in fact, say things were no better under her predecessors.

A true leader -- someone worthy of, say, the Cook County Board president's job -- would stand and say, "This stops with me." We'd like to see Dorothy Brown make that vow, at the same news conference at which she reveals how much she reported in gifts on her federal income tax returns. No, the law doesn't demand it. But the voters should.

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