Cook County Circuit Court Judge Jessica Arong O’Brien was convicted on February 15, 2018 of bank and mail fraud in U.S. District Court in Chicago. O’Brien’s federal prosecution was based on her scheme to defraud several mortgage lenders of $1.4 million from which she pocketed $325,000. O’Brien will lose her $198,075 per year position as a judge due to an Illinois law that mandates the removal of an elected official following a felony conviction. When sentenced on July 6 the 50-year-old O’Brien faces a likely sentence of four to seven years in prison.
Jessica O’Brien graduated from law school in 1998 when she was 31. In 2002 she obtained her doctorate as a Master of Laws in Taxation. In 2000 she went to work as a Special Assistant Attorney General with the Illinois Department of Revenue, and in 2011 her duties were expanded to include being the Acting Chief Counsel of the Illinois Lottery. While working as an attorney for the State of Illinois, in 2001 she started a real-estate company in Chicago: O’Brien Realty LLC.
In November 2012 O’Brien was elected as judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County, and she took office in January 2013. In December 2012 she resigned her positions with the State of Illinois, and in January 2013 she closed her real estate company.
O’Brien was indicted on April 12, 2017 by a federal grand jury for one count each of mail and bank fraud. Maria Bartko was indicted for one count of mail fraud as O’Brien’s codefendant. The indictment alleged that between 2004 and 2007 O’Brien made false representations and concealed facts in loan documents to obtain about $1.4 million in four mortgage and commercial loans. She was provided the money to buy two houses on Chicago’s South Side: one on West 46th Street, and the other on West 54th Street, for which she also obtained a refinancing loan. The indictment alleged she then fraudulently obtained a commercial line of credit to maintain the properties before Bartko fraudulently obtained mortgages to purchase the properties as a “straw buyer” for which she was paid money from the loans.
What was surprising about the indictment is O’Brien and Bartko weren’t charged with conspiracy — a much more serious charge than fraud — even though underlying the fraud charges was the two women conspired with each other to engage in fraud.
At her arraignment O’Brien pled not guilty and was released on a $100,000 bond. Bartko also pled not guilty and was released on bond.
After O’Brien’s indictment she was reassigned to Circuit Court administrative duties. She didn’t file as a candidate for her retention election in 2018.
Bartko, 50, pled guilty on January 26, 2018 to one count of mail fraud affecting a financial institution. During Bartko’s plea hearing she told District Court Judge Thomas Durkin: “I know what I did was wrong.… I know what I submitted was false information.”
O’Brien’s trial began on February 5, 2018. The prosecution presented a number of witnesses to establish O’Brien submitted fraudulent financial documents and that she transmitted fraudulent documents through the mail. O’Brien’s dishonest actions included overstating her income on numerous loan documents, and failing to disclose liabilities, including the substantial mortgage on her primary residence. The prosecution presented evidence that she made $325,000 as a result of her fraudulent conduct. Evidence was also presented that Bartko acted as a “straw buyer” for two pieces of property owned by O’Brien, and that O’Brien tried to conceal two payoff payments she made to Bartko totaling $73,000. Although Bartko had been subpoenaed and was expected to testify, the prosecutors evidently thought they proved their case without her because she wasn’t called as a witness.
The prosecution also presented evidence that O’Brien caused losses to the lenders she defrauded because Bartko defaulted on payments and the properties she “bought” from O’Brien wound up in foreclosure.
O’Brien presented a “dumb dumb” defense: she made mistakes, but she didn’t knowingly commit fraud in her numerous loan applications that wouldn’t have been granted but for the inaccurate financial information she provided, and she didn’t intend to conceal the large payments to Bartko. Her lawyer argued that she acted in “good faith” and what she did was “no different than anyone else” who applied for a mortgage or commercial loan.
O’Brien’s advanced legal degree in tax law, founding a real estate company, and working for 12 years as a lawyer with the Illinois Department of Revenue undermined the argument that mistakes and carelessness on her part accounted for all her actions over a three year period of time related to the two properties that resulted in her pocketing $325,000 in profits, Bartko pocketing $73,000, and the banks losing money.
After a six day trial the federal court jury unanimously convicted O’Brien of both fraud counts on February 15, 2018.
O’Brien is scheduled to be sentenced on July 6. A person convicted of her offenses is generally sentenced to four to seven years in prison. A possible enhancement factor is it is unusual for a person convicted of bank and mail fraud to be a judge elected to a position of public trust.
O’Brien is married to Brendan Alan O’Brien, who in November 2016 was elected as a Cook County Circuit Court judge. She has three children.
Endnote 1. According to the records of the Illinois Secretary of State, Jessica Arong O’Brien was the agent and manager for JVA Properties, LLC that filed its papers on Oct., 15, 2001, and she changed its name to O’Brien Realty LLC on April 29, 2004. It was voluntarily dissolved on January 29, 2013. A potential legal issue unrelated to O’Brien’s federal prosecution is if she complied with any disclosure requirements that she was operating a private real estate business while employed as a state employee.