Cook County prosecutors are investigating a land deal that netted Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown and her husband tens of thousands of dollars with no money down, the Tribune has learned.
Brown's husband, Benton Cook III, confirmed that a grand jury is probing the deal, which saw him get a North Lawndale building for free from a longtime campaign contributor to Brown.
The court clerk quickly became a co-owner, and her company sold the parcel for $100,000 to a Frankfort real estate developer who'd long had his eye on it. The developer said Thursday that he testified before a grand jury earlier this year about how he came to acquire the land.
The investigation of the land deal comes as State's Attorney Anita Alvarez's office also is looking at money Cook received as part of a controversial state anti-violence program that Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn launched in fall 2010 as he was locked in a close election campaign. County prosecutors have issued subpoenas seeking documents related to the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative and specifically requested information about the agency that hired Cook.
Cook confirmed the grand jury probe into his land deal during a brief phone conversation Thursday and referred further questions to his lawyer, Edward Genson, a prominent criminal defense attorney. Genson defended Cook's involvement in the grant program and said he was unaware of any investigation into the land deal.
Musa Tadros, the owner of south suburban Frankfort-based Crown Commercial Real Estate and Development, told the Tribune that he testified before a grand jury in January or February about the land deal.
Alvarez isn't the only one interested in the transaction.
Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard, who previously has conducted joint investigations with Alvarez, confirmed Thursday that his office also is looking into the land deal but declined to answer further questions.
The deal involved a 2,275-square-foot, triangle-shaped property on South Pulaski Road where it meets Ogden Avenue and Cermak Road. It was owned by Narendra Patel, a longtime campaign donor to Brown and a west suburban businessman.
In June 2011, Patel gave the property to Cook without payment, county real estate documents show. Within months of receiving the property, Cook put it in his name and Brown's. Later they transferred it to the Sankofa Group, a for-profit company Brown set up years earlier.
In late 2012, Tadros bought the land for $100,000 from Brown's company, county documents show.
Tadros said he had tried for years to buy the property from Patel, only to be rebuffed.
"He never really wanted to sell it to me," said Tadros, who added that he plans to meet with the county inspector general. "He didn't want to sell."
The old building on the property was an eyesore, one that detracted from the view of Tadros' nearby shopping center. After buying the property, he razed the building.
Tadros said he started talking to Cook about buying the property after Cook came to him and asked to rent parking spaces in the lot of Tadros' shopping center. They worked out a deal in which Tadros would buy the property and Cook would be rented space to sell meat in the shopping center.
Sankofa Group had at least contemplated various business ventures like selling meat, operating vending machines and cleaning windows, according to state documents. Cook never opened the meat shop there, Tadros said.
Asked why Patel gave the property to Brown's husband, Patel attorney Robert Orman said his client wanted to unload it because the taxes and upkeep on a vacant office building in a troubled neighborhood had become a drag on the bottom line.
"It was essentially unsalable at the time," said Orman, who added that Tadros had made a "trivial offer" for the property years earlier.
"(The property) was an albatross."
Orman said there was a lien for $29,000 on the property at the time of sale that reduced its value by that amount. The land deal was first reported in late November by WFLD-Ch. 32 news and the Better Government Association.