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Highly acclaimed Cook County judge indicted by Feds

Thursday, April 13, 2017
WLS Chicago
by Jen DeSalvo

(CHICAGO) A highly regarded Cook County judge who formerly worked for the Illinois Lottery and state Department of Revenue is facing federal fraud charges for providing false information to obtain loans for properties on the South Side, authorities announced Wednesday.

Judge Jessica Arong O’Brien, 49, was charged with one count of mail fraud affecting a financial institution, and one count of bank fraud, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago.

The alleged crimes occurred before O’Brien was elected the first female Filipino-American judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County in 2012, filling the seat vacated by the retirement of Judge Harry Simmons Jr.

She won’t be hearing any more cases at the Daley Center, at least not in the short term.

Circuit Judge E. Kenneth Wright Jr., presiding judge of the First Municipal District, re-assigned O’Brien to “non-judicial duties” until the executive committee of the Circuit Court meets to discuss her case next week, a statement from the office of Chief Judge Timothy Evans said.The executive committee, chaired by Judge Evans, consists of presiding judges from each district of the Circuit Court.

Non-judicial duties can include performing marriage ceremonies and hearing petitions for reduced court-filing fees for indigents.

In a 2016 profile on O’Brien for ABC-Channel 7, Judge Evans called O’Brien “open … optimistic … tenacious” and “committed to justice,” adding “we want to see more like her.”

Evans’ office said it could not comment on the charges against O’Brien because of Illinois Supreme Court rules. She is expected to be arraigned at 10 a.m. April 20 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheila Finnegan.

Federal prosecutors allege O’Brien got lenders to provide loans “by making false representations and concealing material facts in documents submitted to the lenders.” An attorney at the time, she used the loans to buy and refinance about $1.4 million in mortgage and commercial loans, including the purchase of an investment property in the 600 block of West 54th Street in the Back of the Yards, prosecutors said.

She then fraudulently refinanced the mortgage on that property and a second investment property in the 800 block of West 54th Street.

O’Brien then obtained a commercial line of credit through fraud to maintain the properties, before selling them to co-defendant Maria Bartko, 49, of Chicago, and a straw buyer who fraudulently obtained mortgage loans, prosecutors said.

At the time O’Brien was obtaining the loans, she was employed as a special assistant attorney general for the Illinois Department of Revenue, while owning O’Brien Realty LLC, prosecutors said.

She was also working part-time as a loan officer for Amronbanc Mortgage Corp. in north suburban Lincolnwood, where she met Bartko, who faces one count of mail fraud.

The judge, who immigrated to America at the age of 16, has a bachelor’s degree in hotel and food administration from Boston University and a Masters of Laws in Employee Benefits and Taxation from the John Marshall Law School, according to her candidate profile in 2012. She became the first Asian-American president of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois in 2015.

She also won former “President Barack Obama’s Call to Service Award in recognition for her more than 4,000 hours of volunteer service over the past decade,” according to an online biography.

O’Brien has served in roles where she oversaw prospective lawyers and helped select judges, including a term on the Illinois Supreme Court’s “Character and Fitness Committee,” which examines candidates who apply to join the state bar.

She is married to Cook County Circuit Court Judge Brendan A. O’Brien, who was elected in November as the slated Democratic candidate in an unopposed race.

According to her bio on the website of the Diversity Scholarship Foundation, where she was a board member, “Judge O’Brien is a contributing editor for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and has a column entitled, ‘Making It.’ The purpose of her column is to inspire readers of people’s journey to success.”

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