Monday, June 21, 2021

Panel Proposes Disbarment Of Former Judge

An Illinois Hearing Committee recommends disbarment of a former judge convicted of mail fraud.

The Chicago Tribune reported

The first Filipina judge in Cook County broke down in sobs in a federal courtroom Thursday before being sentenced to a year in prison for her role in a $1.4 million mortgage fraud scheme that occurred years before she took the bench.

The dramatic hearing capped a stunning fall from grace for Jessica Arong O’Brien, a pioneering jurist and respected civic leader who was reassigned to administrative duties following her 2017 indictment and officially resigned from her post earlier this year.

A federal jury in February convicted O’Brien, 51, of two counts alleging she and her co-schemers scammed several lenders in the purchase of two South Side properties when she was a lawyer and real estate agent a decade ago.

Before the sentence was handed down Thursday, O’Brien issued a rambling and tearful statement to the court, at one point crying out, “I’m an embarrassment!” and stiff-arming her lawyer who had approached the lectern to try to cut her off.

When she resumed her statement, O’Brien spoke for another 30 minutes, saying repeatedly that she “should have known better” as a lawyer that she was committing fraud and focusing on how she shamed her family and lost a career she loved.

“Of course, I have remorse as to my stupidity,” O’Brien said at one point.

In denying O’Brien’s request for probation, however, Durkin said the fraud scheme she orchestrated lasted nearly three years and wasn’t done on impulse.

“This wasn’t stupid,” Durkin said. “This was a crime. … You really didn’t need to do this.”

O’Brien was convicted of lying to lenders to obtain more than $1.4 million in mortgages on two South Side investment properties that she bought and sold between 2004 and 2007 while owning a real estate company. She was then also working as a special assistant attorney general for the Illinois Department of Revenue.

Prosecutors alleged at trial that O’Brien made a profit by unloading the two homes in 2007 by paying kickbacks to a straw purchaser. In all, O'Brien pocketed at least $325,000 from the transactions, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Madden said. She also caused losses to lenders after the straw purchaser defaulted on payments and the properties wound up in foreclosure, he said.

"She used lies to buy and sell these properties," Madden had told jurors in February.

While the trial featured mostly dry mortgage documents, Thursday’s hearing in Durkin’s packed courtroom focused on O’Brien’s inspiring rags-to-riches story of a Filipina immigrant who came to the U.S. with almost nothing as a teen and built a life through hard work and determination.

O’Brien, who is married to Cook County Judge Brendan O’Brien, earned degrees in culinary arts and restaurant management. She then made a career change and went to John Marshall Law School, graduating in 1998 and later serving on its board. She was the first Asian elected president of the Women's Bar Association of Illinois, served on the board of governors for the Illinois State Bar Association and co-founded a foundation in 2008 that awards scholarships to law students from diverse backgrounds.

“It is an inspirational story,” her lawyer, Steve Greenberg, said in arguing for probation. “She has fallen as far as she can fall. She has lost everything. … There is absolutely no reason to send this poor lady to jail.”

In asking for a two-year prison sentence, Madden said O’Brien’s success story was an aggravating factor because she didn’t have a financial need to commit fraud yet did so anyway.

Madden also stressed that O’Brien had — up until her statement Thursday — refused to take any responsibility for her crime, even telling a court probation officer in an interview before the sentencing that she was innocent of the charges.

“She doesn't seem to have acknowledged at all that her poor decisions are what led her here to this courtroom,” Madden said.

For much of the hearing, O’Brien listened to the arguments while seated at the defense table with a pained expression, at times burying her head in her hands. When it came time for her to make her statement, she approached the lectern with a yellow legal pad in one hand and started speaking breathlessly.

“Of all those things that everyone has told you about me, one thing was missing — stupid,” O’Brien said. “I mean, seriously. This whole process is crazy. I can’t put my hands on it.”

(Mike Frisch)

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