Illinois taxpayers have easy access to very few public documents with the potential to shine a light on possible conflicts of interest involving high-level state and local officials with power over jobs, contract and budgets.
One is the Statement of Economic Interest they’re required to file each year.
Yes, it’s a public document; but no, it doesn’t shine a very bright light.
Sadly, it’s an opaque form with such vague phrasing that Cook County Clerk David Orr estimates 85 percent of the statements filed with his office are blank.
That’s an insult to advocates of transparency and accountability, which is why the Better Government Association is working to revamp the form by requiring more information and clearer reporting.
The form does, however, make one requirement clear: Officials must disclose the names of people or entities that give them or their spouses gifts or political contributions worth more than $500.
It’s information that can help watchdogs and citizens match donors with jobs and contracts dispensed by elected officials they support financially to see if “pay to play” could be at work.
Maybe that’s why so many statements are turned in blank.
Whatever the case, one prominent Cook County official — Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown — apparently chose to ignore the requirement when she failed to disclose what could amount to a $100,000 personal gift from a longtime campaign contributor.
A BGA/FOX 32 investigation published in Friday’s Sun-Times found that Naren Patel, a major Brown donor, signed over a piece of West Side commercial property to Brown’s husband for nothing, or next to nothing: One dollar.
The “giveaway” certainly wasn’t available to the general public, nor was it the fair market value of the property — it was a special deal for Brown’s husband.
A month later, Brown’s name was added to the deed, and the property was then transferred to the private business she and her husband operate from their South Side home.
They subsequently sold it for $100,000.
That means Brown and her husband essentially paid nothing for a piece of property that fetched a hundred grand a little over a year later.
Not a bad deal.
But she didn’t tell the public about it.
One can argue she never should have received the property at all — that it actually falls into the category of “prohibited gifts” that’s intended to prevent people from “buying” favors.
Patel doesn’t have a contract with Brown’s office but his cousin has a six-figure job there.
It’s also possible the gift could be considered a campaign donation, given the history of Patel-connected contributions to Brown, which exceeds $85,000 over the years.
In that case, the gift should have been disclosed in a campaign filing.
Brown refuses to discuss any of this, saying through a spokesperson she won’t comment on “personal matters.”
Personal? Illinois law may beg to differ.
And either way, if Brown did nothing wrong why not disclose the transaction in ethics or campaign filings so the public doesn’t have to learn about it from us?
She didn’t, and she may never be held accountable, given the lax enforcement of those disclosure rules.
That obviously has to change if we’re ever going to have more ethical government in Illinois.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association.