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Cook County judge facing fraud trial; could be knocked off bench

Sunday, February 04, 2018
Chicago Sun-Times
by Jon Seidel

There’s nothing unusual about a politician facing trial in Chicago.

But in what could be a rare sight, a sitting Cook County judge is expected to fill the defendant’s chair Monday at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

Jessica Arong O’Brien is charged in connection with an alleged $1.4 million scheme that has nothing to do with her work on the bench. The feds have said they’re unlikely to even tell the jury what O’Brien does for a living, unless she testifies.

Opening statements in her trial could begin as early as Tuesday in U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin’s courtroom, following jury selection.

In addition to the serious consequence of facing prison time, state law indicates O’Brien would lose her job if convicted at the end of what could be a two-week trial. The job comes with a $198,075-a-year salary, according to the Illinois Supreme Court.

O’Brien’s lawyer, Ricardo Meza, has made clear he expects O’Brien to be acquitted. He wrote in a recent court filing that, “there was no scheme, the government cannot prove any scheme existed,” and he insisted the feds’ case relies on “a known liar” and a man who entered into a “sham marriage” to obtain U.S. citizenship.

He has also accused the feds of targeting O’Brien simply because of her job.

Meza declined to comment further last week, pointing instead to his court filings and future remarks to the jury.

In 2012, O’Brien became the first female Filipino-American elected judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County. She is married to Cook County Judge Brendan A. O’Brien. She is up for retention later this year but has not yet filed her paperwork, an election official said.

Elected offices are automatically vacated under state law when the officeholder is convicted of a felony, Illinois State Board of Elections spokesman Matt Dietrich said.

O’Brien has been on administrative duty since her indictment last April. But Pat Milhizer, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans’ director of communications, said in a statement that “is the strongest action” the court’s executive committee can take.

He added that, “any official action beyond that would be left to the Judicial Inquiry Board and the Illinois Courts Commission.”

The Judicial Inquiry Board has the power to investigate judges. The Courts Commission may remove, suspend, censure or reprimand them for, among other things, conduct “that brings the judicial office into disrepute.”

It most recently “retired” Cook County Judge Valarie Turner for letting clerk Rhonda Crawford wear her robe and hear traffic cases in August 2016.

O’Brien is charged with bank fraud and mail fraud affecting a financial institution. Each charge carries a maximum 30-year prison sentence. The feds claim O’Brien lied on documents and used a straw buyer as she bought and sold properties in the 600 block of West 46th and 800 block of West 54th between 2004 and 2007.

Her co-defendant, Maria Bartko, pleaded guilty in January.

Though Meza initially sought a speedy trial for his client, he eventually relented and spent the last several months trying to persuade Durkin to toss aspects of the case on various grounds. He has argued that the feds waited too long to indict O’Brien, and he has raised questions about whether key loans in the case were actually funded by what qualified under the law at the time as a financial institution.

Additionally, Meza has attacked Bartko’s credibility, insisting that she lied to federal agents, prosecutors and a grand jury.

“Bartko’s perjured testimony was material to the indictment in its entirety,” Meza wrote.

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