Partying during a pandemic: Court clerk Dorothy Brown’s last hurrah

WGN Investigates

CHICAGO — For the first time in 20 years, Dorothy Brown’s name will not be on the ballot on Election Day after the controversial Cook County Court Clerk decided not to seek re-election.

But she’s not leaving without a party. On the eve of an indoor dining ban in Chicago last week, Brown got in one last hurrah.

She stepped out of a stretch limo wearing a red coat and a mask before heading into her own retirement party at a Southwest Side banquet hall.

The parking lot was packed with nearly 50 cars which may suggest a gathering greater than the 50 people allowed by city and state COVID-19 guidelines at the time.

WGN’s Ben Bradley attempted to enter the party.  After he passed a temperature check, a  spokesperson for Brown said he and the WGN crew weren’t welcome.

Despite her deep democratic ties, Brown has found herself as an outsider in recent years. Her stewardship of the county’s court records has been widely criticized.

Federal agents seized her cell phone several years ago as part of a corruption probe, but she was never charged.

A top deputy was convicted of lying to a grand jury about a job buying scheme in the office last year. Prosecutors said they had a statement from an employee who claimed to have paid Brown $15,000 in exchange for a job. The trial judge said, “there is something funny happening in the Clerk’s office.”

UIC political science professor Dick Simpson told WGN in 2019 that there were “all sorts of problems” in the office.

“For a long time there were birthday gifts being given to Dorothy Brown; there was a special ‘jeans fund’ so people could dress down on Fridays,” Simpson said. “But most of all, the big problems were that they were shaking down the office employees to give to Dorothy Brown’s campaigns.”

Brown has long denied wrong-doing. When WGN reported that her office was sending out court hearing notifications postmarked after the hearing date in July, Brown called the questions “examples of racism.”

“They just feel like this black woman’s office had to have done something wrong,” she said at the time.

Through it all, Brown has maintained a loyal following. Brown won five elections for court clerk, and the only election she lost was when she challenged Richard Daley for mayor in 2007.

What’s next for this unapologetic politician?

Now she’ll give up her $105,000 a year salary but begin collecting a taxpayer-funded pension of nearly half that. In August of 2019, she said during a TV appearance she hopes to continue being involved in community activism.

“I want to be able to use my technology, financial, legal and my leadership skills to go to the next level, to help others go to the next level,” Brown said.

As for questions about her party during the pandemic, Brown’s office declined to comment and said it was unrelated to her official duties. And while she’s a prolific poster on social media, Brown didn’t post a single picture from her party after WGN stopped by her soiree.

After our story was first broadcast, the banquet hall’s management responded to our inquiry about COVID-related capacity restrictions by saying there were 50 people in each separate room of the facility with 5 guests per table.

“The clerk did organize the event has been planning it for months,” a Mayfield banquet representative emailed WGN Investigates.

“Everything was done within regulations because as small business owners of Mayfield, we value our business and the safety and health of those we work with.”

A Chicago Department of Health spokesperson said the City’s COVID-19 restrictions for banquet halls at the time of Brown’s party were 40% capacity or 50 people, whichever is lower.

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