Saturday, February 20, 2021

Debt collector indicted on pay-to-play charges linked to Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown. (Chicago Tribune, March 15, 2019)

 Here's the Chicago Tribune story on the March 14, 2019 federal indictment of DONALD DONAGHER, JR. and his PENN CREDIT CORP., subject of the federal judge's February 19, 2021 order, here, granting partial dismissal without prejudice, allowing some indictment counts to be re-drafted by U.S. Attorney and federal grand jury.

Debt collector indicted on pay-to-play charges linked to Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown appears Jan. 22, 2019, at the Chicago Board of Elections. She has been the focus of a federal corruption probe centered on bribes-for-jobs allegations in her county office.
Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown appears Jan. 22, 2019, at the Chicago Board of Elections. She has been the focus of a federal corruption probe centered on bribes-for-jobs allegations in her county office. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune)

The owner of a Pennsylvania debt collection business was indicted Friday on federal charges alleging he steered money to Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown’s office and campaign in exchange for government business.

Donald Donagher Jr. donated thousands of dollars to Brown’s campaign fund, paid $5,000 into the clerk’s scholarship and community development fund and directed one of his employees to make hundreds of thousands of robocalls for Brown’s campaign in an effort to obtain debt collection contracts from the clerk’s office, according to the indictment. Donagher also underwrote the office’s 2014 Women’s History Month celebration, according to the indictment.


Brown, who was first elected to the clerk’s office in 2000, has been the focus of a federal corruption probe centered on bribes-for-jobs allegations in her county office. She repeatedly has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged.

On Friday, Brown referred questions to a spokeswoman who issued a statement saying that Donagher “never approached the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office or the Clerk improperly in any way or at any time.”


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Donagher, 66, was the chief executive officer of the Penn Credit Corp., a national debt collection company based in Harrisburg, Pa. Donagher, who lives in Mechanicsburg, Pa., and Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., was indicted in Chicago on six federal fraud charges, including one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States.

From 2009 to 2016, federal prosecutors say, he provided money and services seeking favorable treatment from the clerks in Cook County and three Florida counties. The clerks are identified in the indictment by letters, not names, but Brown, identified as “Clerk A,” held office in Cook County throughout that time period.

In August 2011, less than three weeks after Penn Credit began its work for the county, Donagher sent an email to his employees and a company lobbyist in Illinois indicating he had promised Brown “10K of ‘early’ money,” according to the indictment. The next month, he donated $10,000 to her campaign fund, prosecutors say.

Records show Penn Credit has done business with several Cook County departments. It could not be determined how much the clerk’s office paid Donagher’s business for debt collection work.


The statement from Brown’s office said “all contract negotiations between Penn Credit and the Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County were conducted in the appropriate manner with the Cook County Procurement Department and the State’s Attorney’s Office involved at all times.”

Donagher’s lawyer, Theodore Poulos, said there were never any quid pro quo agreements between the county and Donagher and his company.

“The allegations against Donald Donagher and Penn Credit are false and the Department of Justice should not have brought this case,” Poulos said. “Mr. Donagher and Penn Credit acted legally and in good faith, and we will prove that in court.”

Poulos said Donagher did nothing to personally enrich a public official. He added that Penn Credit won contracts with the county through a committee and received “excellent” marks for its efforts to increase debt collections for the county.

The indictment indicates Donagher was in direct contact with Brown several times during the span he is accused of sending money to her campaign in exchange for company business.

“I have told [first name of Clerk A] and [first name of Clerk A’s Chief of Staff] that we would be sending a donation of 10,000 dollars,” Donagher wrote in a September 2011 email, according to the indictment. Later, in reference to a request for contributions for a birthday celebration for Brown in 2013, Donagher allegedly sent an email to two of his employees and two of the company’s Illinois lobbyists: “Handle this appropriately. I told her we would do 2500.” Two days after that email, Donagher mailed five $500 checks to Brown’s campaign, prosecutors say.

After Donagher directed an employee to make “hundreds of thousands of robocalls to Cook County residents for Clerk A’s campaign and Clerk A’s associates,” Donagher wanted to make sure his company was getting its fair share of debt collection work from the clerk’s office, compared with a competitor, according to the indictment.

“Just a reminder that we made a s---load of calls for [first name of Clerk A],” Donagher wrote in a 2012 email to two of Penn Credit’s lobbyists in Illinois, according to the indictment. “Have you received all of the numbers we requested to make sure everything is equal?”

A year later, according to prosecutors, Donagher told his employees that his company would give “as much plus a dollar” compared with the donation of a competitor debt collector.

The Circuit Court clerk’s office is the official record-keeper for the county court system and has an annual operating budget of more than $100 million. Brown was elected to head the office in 2000.

Brown launched a bid for Chicago mayor last year, but was kicked off the ballot in January when the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners found she did not have enough valid signatures on her nominating petitions.

Donagher personally donated $6,250 to Friends of Dorothy Brown between 2009 and 2014, campaign finance records show. Penn Credit donated $3,200 to Brown’s campaign fund between 2011 and 2015. Some of the donations in the public database match the indictment, others do not.

In 2017, a Pennsylvania news outlet wrote about Donagher’s love for flying his helicopter from his home to the office and his push for an exemption to zoning rules to build a new private helipad. Donagher told in a January 2017 story headlined “Why drive on I-81 when you can fly to work?” that he owned a red Robinson R44 helicopter that cost about $600,000 and a $1.1 million black Robinson R66.

The story said Donagher dressed up like Santa Claus and used his helicopter to deliver money to emergency responders and also was known to shuttle disadvantaged children to a toy store in the helicopter, giving each $300 to spend.

"I came from nothing and I made out pretty well. So I spend it,” Donagher told PennLive.

Brown’s office has been under scrutiny for several years. The Tribune first reported in May 2014 that the state's attorney was looking into a land deal that netted Brown and husband Benton Cook III tens of thousands of dollars with no money down. The husband got a North Lawndale building for free from a longtime Brown campaign donor. Brown quickly became a co-owner, and her company sold the parcel for $100,000 to a Frankfort real estate developer who'd long had his eye on it.

That county probe grew into a federal investigation, sources told the Tribune. In October 2015, the FBI seized Brown's cellphone.

The federal investigation of Brown’s office has so far led to the indictment and guilty pleaof a former Circuit Court employee for lying to a grand jury investigating “possible criminal violations in connection with the purchasing of jobs and promotions.” That employee was sentenced to three years of probation.

Then in May 2017, Beena Patel, a onetime top aide to Brown and sister of the political donor in the land deal that started the probe, was indicted on charges she lied to a grand jurywhen asked in two separate appearances about pay-to-play allegations in the clerk's office.

A court filing in the case against Patel stated that a Brown employee told federal investigators that $10,000 was the "going rate" to buy a job in the circuit clerk's office. Another employee said in an FBI interview that it was well-known that showering gifts on Brown could earn you a promotion.

It's common practice for federal prosecutors to start by bringing charges against lower-level employees and then work their way up when pursuing a case against a high-level public official. Brown has faced long-standing criticism about accepting cash gifts and campaign contributions from her employees and their relatives.

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