Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown has spent a lot of time on the campaign trail touting her record of professionalism and accountability in running one of the County's largest departments.
But an investigation by FOX Chicago News and the Better Government Association has uncovered a little-known fundraising practice in the Clerk's office that some employees and critics equate to a shakedown.
It's called, "Jeans Day." For several years employees have been allowed to wear jeans to work if they fork over cash to the clerk for the perk. Employees said the going rate is $3 a day $10 if they wear jeans the entire week.
Problem is, there appears to be little or no accounting for what happens with all that cash.
"We would like to know where the money goes," said one Clerk employee who wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing the job. The employee said the cash is collected by office managers and stuffed into oversized manila envelopes. Rarely are the names of the contributors written down. "The timekeeper is the one who takes the cash, and she grabs the money and puts it in one of those brown envelopes," said the employee.
Jeans Day was in place before Brown took office in 2000, but employees said it was done only once or twice a year. Now they said it is a nearly year-round operation collecting thousands of dollars in cash.
Brown, who is among four Democrats vying for the job of Cook County Board President, has refused to provide specific details about the Jeans Day program.
"It's a benevolent initiative... there are proper controls, sir," said Brown when questioned about the practice at a recent campaign event. Brown assured a FOX Chicago News reporter she would provide information about how much money has been raised, where it goes and who controls it.
But the following day her office released a statement providing none of the requested information.
"Funds, in cash, checks or money orders, are voluntarily submitted, collected and properly controlled by management and used only for the cause for which they were collected," the statement said.
Employees said they have tried to pay by check but were told that is not allowed.
"I wanted to write a check for $10," said a second employee who spoke on condition of anonymity. "And (the supervisor) said 'why don't you go to the ATM and cash the check and then pay?' Even if I made it out to cash they wouldn't take it."
"It's a license to pocket the employee's cash and moreover it's a shakedown," said Better Government Association Director Andy Shaw. "You're essentially saying if you want to dress comfortably in this governmental office, it's going to cost you money. Why should a government employee have to pay cash to dress a certain way?"
Brown said the money raised has been donated to numerous charities such as Hurricane Katrina relief, the American Red Cross and the American Cancer Society. She said the money also goes to pay for employee events like picnics and recognition dinners.
Yet after repeated Freedom of Information requests, Brown’s office has yet to produce any documents substantiating those claims. The Clerk's Web site contains three press releases over the past five years announcing charitable donations from employee contributions. Those contributions total less than $10,000.
That would appear to be far less than the amount of cash that has been collected. Though participation in Jeans Day varies, sources said most employees do wear jeans on occasion and some wear jeans for a good part of the year. There are more than 2,100 Clerk of Court employees in 18 offices spread throughout Cook County. Again, Brown's spokespersons did not provide information about employee participation.
"What the taxpayers need here is an audit of every one of those dollars," said the BGA’s Shaw. "We need to see who's contributing, how much and where exactly the money's going.... Otherwise this is some kind of slush fund and people are getting wealthy at the expense of employees."
During her campaign for the Board President's job Brown has repeatedly stressed her credentials as an MBA and CPA as evidence of her intent to clean up Cook County's reputation for tax waste and political corruption.
"I'm a proven leader with a proven track record of reform, innovation and saving taxpayer's dollars," she is fond of saying.
FOX Chicago News gave Brown one final chance to explain where the money goes as she exited her fundraiser last week.
"There are controls in place... I'll give you the information and just give me a call, okay," Brown said as she got into her car. Brown then closed the door and held her Bible up to the window before she was driven away.
We're still waiting.