Federal prosecutors on Tuesday detailed alleged bribery and corruption within the Cook County court clerk’s office during opening statements in the perjury trial of former clerk employee Beena Patel.
Prosecutors say Patel, along with other employees, used her position as a supervisor in the clerk’s office to help raise money for Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown’s campaign fund, and they allege Patel lied to a federal grand jury about the alleged corruption in Brown’s office.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather McShain told the jury that in 2015, federal agents were in the middle of an investigation into the allegation that Brown was trading jobs, promotions and pay raises in return for money, loans and political donations. Patel was called twice to testify under oath as part of that investigation.
“On both occasions, the defendant took an oath. The defendant raised her right hand and swore, or affirmed, to tell the truth. On both occasions, the defendant lied,” McShain said.
McShain told the jury that those lies impeded the federal investigation into Brown’s office. And she said they turned the criminal justice system “upside down.”
Patel’s trial is the first to stem from the yearslong federal investigation into the court clerk’s office, and offers the most in-depth look into the alleged pay-for-promotions and bribery scheme.
Patel has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and her attorney, Walter Jones, told jurors there is no evidence that Patel had anything to with any alleged bribery scheme.
“She emphatically denies the charges,” Jones said of his client. “Ms. Patel has not been charged with any allegations regarding job selling. Further, there will be no evidence … that she ever solicited a bribe or conspired to bribe any person.”
Jones called the “so-called lies” told by Patel “so insignificant.”
Patel’s trial is expected to last about a week. Multiple current and former clerk’s office employees are on the government’s witness list, but prosecutors will not call Brown to the witness stand.
Brown has led the court clerk’s office — which has an annual budget of more than $100-million — for nearly two decades. She won re-election for a fifth term in 2016 in the midst of the federal investigation into alleged purchasing of jobs and promotions within her office.
Federal agents seized Brown’s cell phone as part of that investigation. At the time Brown said she had done nothing wrong, and that the investigation may have been based on people lying to federal agents about her. A clerk spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk. Follow him @pksmid.