PI Original Ellyn Fortino Friday February 5th, 2016, 4:54pm

Election Preview: Cook Co. Circuit Court Clerk Candidates Spar Over Ethics, Job Qualifications

The Democratic primary race for Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court is heating up, with candidates sparring over ethics and who is best equipped to modernize the office and make it more efficient.

With over a month to go until the March 15 primary, the race for Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court is a key election battle to watch on the Democratic side.

Longtime Democratic incumbent Dorothy Brown is seeking a fifth term amid a federal probe into her office over alleged "purchasing of jobs and promotions." Brown -- who was first elected clerk in 2000 and maintains that her office has "done things above board" -- is running against Chicago Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) and Jacob Meister, an attorney and civil rights activist.

Chicago Tribune poll released this week shows Brown leading the race with 36 percent of the vote, followed by Harris at 11 percent and Meister at 6 percent. Forty-seven percent of survey respondents, however, fell into the "other/undecided" category.

Candidates in the race are sparring over their job qualifications and who is best equipped to modernize and make more efficient an office that handles 1.5 million cases annually and has nearly 2,000 employees and a $100 million operating budget.

Controversies surrounding the clerk's office are also at play in the race. In October, the Cook County Democratic Party pulled its endorsement of Brown after news surfaced that the FBI had seized her cellphone as part of its ongoing investigation of her operations. The Cook County Democratic Party then gave its backing to Harris over Meister, the latter of whom did not mince words when asked about the party's endorsement decision. 

Harris "was slated by the party to, frankly, protect and preserve the party's self-interest, as opposed to the public interest," Meister said in an interview with Progress Illinois. "She's not a lawyer. She has absolutely zero administrative background in court operation. She's just not qualified for the job."

As an attorney, Meister said he has "working knowledge of all the divisions of the court." He said he has an operational and management background, plus experience in human resources and accounting, representing "all the components that come into play at the clerk's office."

Harris was unavailable for an interview but did answer questions via email.

In response to Meister's comments, Harris said he "fervently sought the endorsement of the party and Democratic elected officials he now condemns."

She added that being an attorney is not a requirement for the job and "provides no special powers, guarantee of competence or assurances of integrity." Harris swiped at Meister, saying he is the one "who has no special qualifications for the job."

"Unlike me, he's never had to work with elected officials at different branches and levels of government to build consensus, find compromise on legislation and administrative tasks that benefits the public," she said. "Clerk of the Circuit Court is no place for someone like Mr. Meister who will need on the job training."

Regarding the Cook County Democratic Party's endorsement switch, Brown believes "they pulled the trigger on that too quickly."

"I have my cellphone back without any questions asked," Brown said in an interview. "I know how I handle my business. I know how I do things properly. I had no concerns about them looking at my cellphone, my texts, my emails -- none of that. And I had no concerns about them from the standpoint of jobs in that office, because I know that I have proper controls in place."

As part of the federal investigation into Brown's office, a clerk employee was charged in November with one count of lying to a grand jury about his communications with Brown and a $15,000 loan he gave to a company controlled by her husband, Benton Cook III. The employee, Sivasubramani Rajaram, allegedly gave the business the loan shortly before he was rehired at the clerk's office in 2014. Brown and Cook have not been charged with any wrongdoing.

Nonetheless, Brown's opponents are hammering her over ethics issues as well as the technology in her office. 

Meister said the clerk's office is "broke both operationally and ethically."

"I've been practicing as an attorney in the Cook County courts for 25 years. I've also practiced in other courts around the state and around the country, and I know how broken the Cook County court administration is, and I also know how good court systems operate," he said. "I'm running to bring the office into the 21st Century, to bring modern electronic systems to the office and ultimately bring it into a paperless environment, which is driven by customer service and a desire to clean the office up."

Harris said she's running to "change the failed status quo" at the clerk's office.

"This office is facing monumental financial and ethical challenges. It is in dire need of new leadership, modern technology and improved staff morale," she said. "As an experienced administrator with a proven record in staff, budget and office management, along with deep knowledge of Cook County government, I can offer the desperately needed, fresh perspective and professionalism required to ... overhaul a badly outdated court records management system."

Brown defended her tenure, citing electronic filing and the implementation of an imaging and document management storage system as a few of her top accomplishments as clerk.

The imaging and document management system, Brown said, captures "all of the documents that people still insist on filing by paper, even though we have an electronic filing system in place." People continue to use paper, Brown said, because the Illinois Supreme Court has yet to make electronic filing mandatory.

Brown pushed back on criticism that her office has not digitized fast enough, saying people "have to recognize where I came from" and "how antiquated this office was before I took office." When Brown was first elected in 2000, she said the office didn't have an email system, few phones had voicemail and the probate and county divisions were still writing court case results with pen and paper. By 2002, all divisions had gone to an electronic case management system, she said. Other major projects she tackled include implementing a new cashiering and security system and installing an intranet for clerk staff.

"We're one of the largest court systems in the world," she said, explaining that it "takes months and months and months" to complete such projects. 

Plans For The Office

Brown said the clerk's office is gearing up for a new electronic case management system for all case types. An evaluation committee is reviewing proposals submitted by vendors for the project, which could take about two years to fully implement, Brown said. 

The incumbent, who said she does not participate in evaluation committees for vendors, said implementation of the new e-case management system could start this spring or early summer.

In addition to implementing the new e-case management system, Brown said she will push to make the electronic record the official court record. She also wants to establish technology-equipped courtrooms with computers and presentation equipment, a "full-service" adult and juvenile expungement center and a task force that would recommend improvements for the child support collection system, among other future plans.

If elected, Harris said she would "conduct formal audits of all systems, policies and procedures" upon taking office. The goal, she said, is "to more precisely identify the most urgent problems that must be addressed to help our courts protect the civil and constitutional rights of Cook County residents."

Meister said he would work to bring the clerk's office "in line with the best practices of other courts around the country" and improve bilingual services. He also stressed the need to restore public confidence in the office.

"That office is, in my estimation, corrupt," he said. "And it's a patronage-based system. It has been for some time. And now there's indications that there's pay-to-play that's been going on, and regardless of those ethical issues, it's clear there's universal recognition among lawyers and judges that the office is operationally broke -- to the point where justice isn't getting done. Judges can't do their jobs. Lawyers can't do theirs."

Brown brushed off Meister's comments, saying that he "sounds a little desperate to me." If her office was "operationally broke," Brown said attorneys and judges would probably be "striking." 

"You don't see that," she said.

In responding to the pay-to-play accusations, Brown said, "You can look at my standard of living and tell I'm not getting any money from anybody."

She explained that much of the office's hiring process is computerized.

"All of the positions that are hired, even the gentleman who had the issues, he actually, he was selected by the computer," she added. "That's why I wasn't concerned about them taking my cellphone because I know that that person was even selected by the computer. So there's no pay-to-play going on here whatsoever. We've done things above board."

Debates

Meister said he's been calling on his opponents to agree to at least three debates.

Brown said she plans to participate in a March 9 WTTW debate, adding that the candidates have already had an opportunity to appear before the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times editorial boards. Brown said she would give other debate invitations from "official agencies" her "strong consideration." 

Harris' campaign provided the following statement to Progress Illinois regarding debates: 

We have never received a written communication with details as to format, locations and hosts from Mr. Meister. We would be happy to consider anything he would like to propose and hope that we could reach an agreement that is acceptable to all three candidates. In the meantime, we have already appeared at a number of voters' forums with him and we will be participating in similar events throughout Cook County in the coming weeks.

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