Dorothy Brown’s company gets sweet real estate deal thanks to major donor
BY ROBERT HERGUTH, PATRICK REHKAMP and DANE PLACKO November 29, 2013 12:19AM
Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown
Updated: December 30, 2013 12:27PM
Suburban businessman Naren Patel has donated generously to Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown’s campaign fund over the years — more than $85,000, according to election records.
But Patel’s generosity is now prompting questions about whether Brown crossed an ethical — and perhaps a legal — line amid revelations that her husband was essentially given a commercial building by Patel in 2011.
Brown’s consulting business ended up on the title a few months later and then sold the structure in 2012 for $100,000, a Better Government Association/FOX 32 investigation found.
Whether the conveyance of the property to Brown’s husband, Benton Cook III, constituted a campaign donation, a gift or a true sale, it appears this should have been publicly disclosed by Brown — who, as an elected official, is subject to disclosure rules designed to prevent conflicts of interest and promote transparency, according to documents and interviews.
But the 2011 or 2012 transactions weren’t revealed on Brown’s campaign reports filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections, or her statement of economic interest on file with the county.
Either way, it’s unclear why someone would hand over a potentially valuable piece of property to a politician.
Reached on the phone, Brown hung up on a reporter. She later relayed through her government spokeswoman she won’t comment on “personal matters.” Her husband gave a similar response in a brief conversation.
In interviews, Patel and his lawyer said the nearly 100-year-old single-story commercial building at 2201 S. Pulaski in Chicago was given to Brown’s husband because it was dilapidated and not worth much, and Patel simply wanted to get rid of it. They said it was not intended as a political donation, and Patel wanted nothing in return. Patel can’t recall who first raised the idea of Brown’s husband getting the property, Patel’s lawyer, Robert Orman, said.
Patel said he conveyed the triangular parcel — where Pulaski, Ogden and Cermak converge — to Cook in June 2011 for a single dollar. While county property records indicate no money changed hands, in practical terms there doesn’t seem to be any difference.
The next month, Brown’s name was added to the paperwork as an owner. And in October 2011, the ownership was transferred to Sankofa Group LLC, a private business Brown runs from her South Side home, records show.
In November 2012, Sankofa sold the building to a partnership affiliated with a Frankfort developer for $100,000, and it was subsequently knocked down, records show.
The Frankfort developer, Musa Tadros, said he tried at various times over the years to buy the building from Patel but was rebuffed.
“I own the shopping center across the street, I’ve been trying to buy the building for the last 25 years,” so he could knock it down and improve visibility for the shopping center, Tadros said.
Orman said Tadros talked about buying the building more than a decade ago for a price that wasn’t realistic then.
Tadros said he only found out Cook had obtained the property when he approached Tadros about using some of his shopping center parking for a business Cook was planning to open at the 2201 S. Pulaski property.
Tadros said he declined to help with the parking because he’d long wanted to buy the structure and tear it down.
He eventually realized that wish when Sankofa sold to the Frankfort partnership.
Tadros said, “I honestly felt I overpaid,” but insisted the sale had nothing to do with Brown or politics.
Patel, however, has been politically tied to Brown for years.
Patel recalled they met at a local event for Indian Americans, as Patel is from India, Orman said.
Patel and the west suburban company he runs, Medstar Laboratory, which handles medical testing, together donated more than $85,000 to Brown over the last decade, according to state election board records. Medstar workers have donated another $15,000 to Brown, and Patel has also been involved in raising campaign money for her, records indicate.
Medstar does no business for Brown’s agency, according to Brown’s spokeswoman.
Orman said the building transfer wasn’t as big of a deal as it may look at first blush. Patel initially tried to sell the structure on the market, with no luck, and by giving it to Brown’s husband was able to stop paying the upkeep, taxes and liability on the property, Orman said.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth and Patrick Rehkamp, and FOX 32’s Dane Placko.