Cook County Judge Removed From Bench Amid Federal Fraud Charges

CHICAGO (CBS) — A highly regarded Cook County judge has been removed from hearing cases after being charged by federal authorities with fraud for providing false information to obtain loans for properties on the South Side.

Judge Jessica Arong O’Brien, 49, was charged last week with one count of mail fraud affecting a financial institution, and one count of bank fraud, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago.

On Wednesday, Chief Judge Timothy Evans announced that O’Brien has been “reassigned to administrative duties in the office of the Presiding Judge of the First Municipal District, Judge E. Kenneth Wright Jr.” The action followed a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Circuit Court of Cook County on Tuesday.

Administrative duties can include performing marriage ceremonies and reviewing petitions for reduced court-filing fees for indigent parties, a statement from Evans’ office said. The action is effective immediately and until further notice.

“The committee is aware that a federal grand jury indicted Judge O’Brien on April 12, and she is accused of fraudulently obtaining loans related to the purchase, maintenance and sale of properties in Chicago,” the statement said. “That same day, on April 12, Judge Wright reassigned Judge O’Brien to administrative duties until the Executive Committee could consider the matter.”

Evans said last week that he was unable to comment further on the matter, citing Supreme Court Rule 63, which states, “A judge should abstain from public comment about a pending or impending proceeding in any court…”

The alleged crimes occurred before O’Brien was elected the first female Filipino-American judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County in 2012.

Federal prosecutors allege O’Brien got lenders to provide loans “by making false representations and concealing material facts in documents submitted to the lenders.” An attorney at the time, she used the loans to buy and refinance about $1.4 million in mortgage and commercial loans, including the purchase of an investment property in the 600 block of West 54th Street in the Back of the Yards, prosecutors said.

She then fraudulently refinanced the mortgage on that property and a second investment property in the 800 block of West 54th Street.

O’Brien then obtained a commercial line of credit through fraud to maintain the properties, before selling them to co-defendant Maria Bartko, 49, of Chicago, and a straw buyer who fraudulently obtained mortgage loans, prosecutors said.

O’Brien has pleaded not guilty and was released on her own recognizance. She faces 4-7 years in prison if convicted.

At the time O’Brien was obtaining the loans, she was employed as a special assistant attorney general for the Illinois Department of Revenue, while owning O’Brien Realty LLC, prosecutors said.

She was also working part-time as a loan officer for Amronbanc Mortgage Corp. in north suburban Lincolnwood, where she met Bartko, who faces one count of mail fraud.

The judge, who immigrated to America at the age of 16, has a bachelor’s degree in hotel and food administration from Boston University and a Masters of Laws in Employee Benefits and Taxation from the John Marshall Law School, according to her candidate profile in 2012. She became the first Asian-American president of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois in 2015.

O’Brien won former “President Barack Obama’s Call to Service Award in recognition for her more than 4,000 hours of volunteer service over the past decade,” according to an online biography. She also served a term on the Illinois Supreme Court’s “Character and Fitness Committee,” which examines candidates who apply to join the state bar.

She is married to Cook County Circuit Court Judge Brendan A. O’Brien, who was elected in November in an unopposed race.

According to her bio on the website of the Diversity Scholarship Foundation, where she was a board member, “Judge O’Brien is a contributing editor for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and has a column entitled, ‘Making It.’ The purpose of her column is to inspire readers of people’s journey to success.”

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