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Prosecutors allege Dorothy Brown took $15K bribe, but her lawyer calls it loan

Friday, February 17, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Jason Meisner,

Prosecutors allege Dorothy Brown took $15K bribe, but her lawyer calls it loan

Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune
Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown votes at Jesse Owens Park during the morning of the Illinois primary March 15, 2016.

Jason Meisner, Chicago Tribune

8:20 pm, February 17, 2017

Federal prosecutors alleged for the first time on Friday that Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown took a $15,000 bribe disguised as a business loan from a man seeking a job with her office.

An attorney for Brown, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing, said the payment was a legitimate loan, not a bribe.

The filing by prosecutors revealed that Brown exchanged numerous phone calls and text messages with the employee, Sivasubramani Rajaram, around the time he gave the money to a goat meat supply company Brown and her husband had recently founded. The filing also alleged Brown had solicited and received another $10,000 loan for the same company from a "senior-level" employee of the clerk's office.

The new allegations came in a sentencing memorandum for Rajaram, who pleaded guilty last April to lying to a federal grand jury investigating wider allegations of pay-to-play in a clerk's office headed by Brown for more than 17 years.

Rajaram admitted in a plea agreement with prosecutors that he was hired by Brown's office in September 2014, just weeks after he gave two purported loans totaling $15,000 to Goat Masters Corp., a company controlled by Brown and her husband, Benton Cook III.

A high-ranking clerk's office employee — identified only as Individual B — "suggested" Rajaram make the loan to Brown in order to be hired and then helped him get the money to Brown's company, prosecutors said.

By lying to the grand jury, Rajaram not only sought to protect himself and his job but also to divert the investigation into Brown, Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather McShain wrote in advance of Rajaram's sentencing later this month.

"The effect of defendant's lies was to hide his own criminality — in paying a bribe to a public official to obtain a job and cheat honest applicants from obtaining that position — and divert attention from (Brown) and Individual B," McShain said.

Brown's criminal defense attorney, Edward Genson, said the money paid by Rajaram was a legitimate loan that had "nothing to do" with his hiring.

"It certainly wasn't a bribe," said Genson, adding that the money has since been paid back.

Grand jury transcripts provided in the prosecution filing show Rajaram testified he knew Individual B from a previous stint in the clerk's office that ended when he moved to India in 2010.

The transcripts show Rajaram testified he'd seen Brown at several of her clerk's office functions, including at a staff picnic and an American Heritage Month celebration at Daley Plaza, but he denied ever talking to her. He also testified that he had spoken to Individual B "three or four times" and that none of those conversations was by phone.

Asked if he'd ever had a conversation with Brown at all — by phone or in person — about his application, Rajaram answered, "No," according to the transcript.

A few weeks after Rajaram's false testimony, Brown's cellphone was seized by the FBI. Brown had Rajaram's number stored in her contacts list and had exchanged 26 text messages with Rajaram between August 2014 and January 2015, according to the filing. She also made three outgoing calls to Rajaram's cellphone and received two incoming calls from him.

In one text, Rajaram wished Brown a happy birthday "and many happy returns of the day," signing the message with his first name as well as his wife's name, the filing said. Prosecutors said Rajaram's wife also had sought employment with the clerk's office, but county records indicate she was never hired.

Records obtained from the investigation show Rajaram had at least two in-person meetings with Brown, prosecutors said. In a December 2014 voicemail message left on Individual B's phone, Rajaram said that he and his wife had met with the "honorable clerk" and her husband and that his wife was "very happy," according to the filing.

"And what word you gave me, I told them," Rajaram said, according to the filing.

Prosecutors said FBI agents first confronted Rajaram at his home in Des Plaines in August 2015. The next month, they interviewed his wife alone. After the agents left, she called Individual B and left a message saying they needed to talk — but not by phone, according to the filing.

"I, I don't know where, how we're gonna call, I have no idea," she said in the message, according to the filing. "Ah yeah, if you don't mind, I can come to your home. Same people they come back again today ... two hours they talk with me."

Prosecutors said they will seek a 15-month prison term for Rajaram, who did not cooperate in the ongoing investigation.

Now in her fifth term, Brown beat out two challengers in last year's primary even though the Cook County Democratic Party had dropped its endorsement of her after the public disclosure of the federal investigation.

After the primary win, Brown said she was keeping Rajaram in her prayers.

"He's a great employee, a great man," she said at the time. "I'm really disappointed."

The Tribune has previously reported Cook County prosecutors were investigating the sale of a North Lawndale building owned by Narendra Patel, a west suburban businessman and longtime campaign donor to Brown. Patel, who is now deceased, gave the property to Brown's husband at no cost in June 2011, and the couple eventually sold it for $100,000.

Patel's sister, Beena Patel, works as an administrator at the circuit clerk's office. State records show that she gave nearly $2,700 to Brown's campaign fund from 2003 to 2008.

Neither Brown nor her chief spokeswoman returned calls on Friday, but she has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. In a 2016 interview with the Tribune Editorial Board, she said it's "impossible for me or anyone else to sell any jobs in that office."

But she has denied Tribune requests for copies of subpoenas related to the federal probe, saying they are not subject to state open records laws.

Tribune's Hal Dardick contributed.

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