What promises to be a mundane mortgage fraud trial filled with dry testimony from bankers about decade-old financial documents drew a standing room-only crowd to a federal courtroom in Chicago on Tuesday morning.
The reason? The defendant is a judge herself.
Cook County Associate Judge Jessica Arong O’Brien is the first sitting judge in years to face a jury on criminal charges at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse.
O’Brien, 50, was accused of orchestrating a $1.4 million mortgage fraud scheme stemming from the purchase of two South Side properties when she was a lawyer and real estate agent a decade ago — long before she became the first Filipina elected to the county bench.
If convicted, O’Brien, who was reassigned to administrative duties following her indictment last year, would by law be forced to step down from her judgeship.
In opening statements Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin, lawyers for both sides made no mention of O’Brien’s judicial position because it had nothing to do with the charges she’s facing.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Madden told jurors O’Brien lied at least four times on loan and refinancing applications for two investment properties she purchased in 2004 and 2005 when she was working as a lawyer for the Illinois Department of Revenue. She then made a profit by unloading the two homes in 2007 by paying kickbacks to a straw purchaser, Madden said.
In all, O’Brien pocketed at least $325,000 from the transactions, 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 said.
O’Brien’s attorney, Ricardo Meza, said in his opening remarks that O’Brien may have made some “mistakes” when reporting her income and financial affairs but that none of it was intentional.
“Mistakes are not fraud,” Meza said. “Whatever Jessica did, it was always done in good faith. If she made a mistake, she’s no different than anyone else.”
Meza also said prosecutors vastly overstated the amount of loss in the case.
“What happened here is the government got it wrong,” Meza said.
O’Brien was elected to the bench in 2012 as the first Filipina judge in Cook County and had most recently presided over a small-claims courtroom.
O’Brien, who is married to a judge, immigrated to the U.S. after high school and earned degrees in culinary arts and restaurant management, according to online biographies. 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 and also served on the board of governors for the Illinois State Bar Association. The judge also co-founded a foundation in 2008 that awards scholarships to law students from diverse backgrounds.
At the time of the alleged fraud, O’Brien was working as special assistant attorney general for the state Department of Revenue, where she also reportedly held the position of chief counsel to the Illinois Lottery. She also owned her own real estate company and worked part time as a loan originator for Amronbanc Mortgage Corp., records show.
Her co-defendant, Maria Bartko, was also working for Amronbanc and agreed to take part in the scheme, prosecutors said.
O’Brien allegedly used fraudulently obtained mortgage loan proceeds to buy an investment property in the 600 block of West 46th Street in Chicago and then lied on applications to refinance the mortgage on the property as well as on a second investment property in the 800 block of West 54th Street in Chicago.
Among the lies O’Brien told were listing her income as $81,000 in 2004 when in fact she was on maternity leave and made only $11,000 that year, Madden said.
The next year, O’Brien claimed in refinancing documents that her company, O’Brien Realty, took in at least $240,000 in profits in 2005, but tax returns showed only $21,000 in receipts, Madden said.
The indictment also alleges that O’Brien fraudulently obtained a $25,000 commercial line of credit to maintain the properties before selling them to Bartko and a straw buyer.
The deals closed on consecutive days in 2007, with O’Brien walking away “$100,000 richer” from the fraudulent transactions, Madden said.
Bartko, 50, of Streamwood, pleaded guilty last month to one count of mail fraud affecting a financial institution. She agreed to testify against O’Brien as part of her plea deal, but prosecutors have since said they do not intend to call her as a witness.