Brown, Munoz battle over who best to modernize circuit courts
By ABDON M. PALLASCH AND LISA DONOVAN Staff Reporters March 11, 2012 9:58PM
Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown and challenger Ricardo Munoz, alderman of the 22nd Ward, debate at a Sun-Times editorial board meeting last month. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times
Ald. Ricardo Munoz
The last good book you’ve read: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. “It was a captivating book about a new age visionary,” Munoz said.
Cubs or Sox? Cubs.
Chore you hate the most: Weeding out the garden and taking the car in for the emissions testing.
Favorite dish you cook: Three-bean Texas style chili and homemade pizza.
A politician you’d most like to have lunch with: Abner Mikva.
Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown
The last good book you’ve read: The Schwarzbein Principle by Dr. Diane Schwarzbein. “I liked it because it teaches people how to live long and healthy lives in every aspect.”
Cubs or Sox? Cubs and Sox
Chore you hate the most: Washing Dishes.
Favorite dish you cook: German Chocolate Cake
A politician you’d most like to have lunch with: President Barack Obama
Updated: April 13, 2012 10:26AM
Three blocks away in federal court, everything is computerized.
In DuPage County, 85 percent of cases are filed online.
But in the Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court’s office, lawyers say it’s still 1960. Everything is paper and carbon. Only 3 percent of cases are filed online.
Dorothy Brown, 58, a lawyer and CPA, ran for clerk 12 years ago promising to modernize the office.
She offers various reasons she has not been able to do more: Lack of cooperation from the Illinois Supreme Court or from the Cook County Board.
Ald. Ricky Munoz, 47, her challenger in the March 20 Democratic primary, says he would deliver results instead of excuses.
“It’s clear that you’re a little clueless about this office and clueless about what’s going on with the Supreme Court,” Brown told Munoz when the two appeared before the Sun-Times editorial board.
Munoz says Brown is an insider who’s feathered her campaign nest with contributions from her staff and government contractors.
During Brown’s first re-election campaign in 2004, the Sun-Times quoted Brown staffers by name saying they were pressured to buy tickets to her fund-raisers. Brown now says those staffers lied to the Sun-Times.
KEEPER OF THE FILES
The Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court is the official record-keeper of civil and criminal court documents.
Munoz, an alderman for 19 years, has the support of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. He says it’s time to sweep the office of old-school politics and vows not to take contributions from employees or contractors doing business with the court clerk’s office, which Brown does.
Brown’s refusing to take the same pledge, saying there’s nothing illegal about it.
“I do not pressure my employees,” Brown told the Sun-Times editorial board. “I don’t make decisions based upon on my D2s,” she said, referring to the state campaign disclosure forms. “I don’t review my D2s to see who contributed. Contributing to me makes absolutely no difference to me as it relates to promotions or terminations or things of that nature.”
County employees are free to contribute to their boss’s campaign — as long as it’s voluntary. A county ordinance caps contractor contributions at $1,500 in an election cycle, and state law allows individuals to contribute $5,000 to a candidate per election.
Still good government groups hold their noses.
“It raises questions about how the office is being run — if it’s being run in the best interest of the taxpayers … or if it’s being run for the personal benefit of the public official,” said David Morrison, deputy director for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
‘CAN’T FIX WHAT YOU DON’T SEE’
Munoz said this in past week: “You can’t fix corruption unless you can see it. If you can’t see the problem of employees contributing to her campaign and vendors contributing to her campaign, than it’s a problem.”
Go back 12-plus years and Brown, the Chicago Transit Authority auditor, was considered the outsider candidate who, without the party’s blessing, rode into the clerk’s office under the banner of reform.
Today, Brown’s the party-endorsed candidate seeking her fourth term to run the $111 million, 1,900-employee operation.
Earlier this month, Brown reassigned a staffer who had regular access to police files after the Chicago Crime Commission identified him as a gang leader and suburban police chiefs raised concerns.
And in 2010, she scrapped “Jeans Day” — a recurring office charity in which staffers forked over a few bucks to their bosses in exchange for the chance to wear jeans to work. Staffers complained to the media that they were being strong-armed to donate and questioned where the money went.
The county’s Inspector General investigated and found that while the cash-handling made it difficult to track each dollar, there was no evidence of fraud. Brown said the report vindicated her.
While Brown has weathered controversies such as “Jeans Day,” Munoz, has likewise been through storms. His father was convicted in federal court of making fake ID’s. Munoz went public with his alcoholism and says he has given up alcohol. While he was an independent sometimes picking fights with the Mayor Richard M. Daley in his 19 years on the City Council, he voted for Daley’s controversial sale of parking meters.
LAWYERS SAY FILES A MESS
In interviews this past week, bar association leaders say lawyers in Cook County “universally” agree the clerk’s files have never been such a mess: Important filings are missing from cases, replaced by documents from other cases. Lawyers hoping Brown’s office can assemble a full record to appeal a case up to the state appellate court find they must recreate case records at their office when the clerk can’t find things.
Cook County is part of a statewide e-filing pilot program, allowing some litigation cases to be filed online.
Munoz blames Brown for the lack of progress toward computerization — which other clerks of the court in Illinois have been able to achieve.
Brown said such comparisons are unfair because Cook County handles so many more cases than the others. She says the state Supreme Court is holding up a program she wants to start here.
In a separate appearance before the Sun-Times editorial board, Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis denied the court was blocking Brown.
Munoz interprets the holdup as the state Supreme Court’s thumbs down on Brown’s e-filing system and questions both the contract her office gave to On-Line Information Services Inc. to administer the e-filing program and how the company got the nod in the first place.
The company has contributed more than $20,000 to her campaigns since 2001, according to Munoz and state campaign disclosure records.
The deal calls for the company and the county to get a share of the $4.95 convenience fee — a small amount right now — but could add up to millions once the program is up and running, Munoz contends.
Brown said a staff committee — not her — chose On-Line Information Services because of its e-filing background.
Brown says Munoz takes campaign contributions from developers in his Southwest Side ward and lobbyists.
But Munoz says there’s a “fundamental difference — I don’t have direct contract oversight” of developers working in his ward or the special interest groups lobbying him.