First elected Fil-Am judge in Illinois indicted for mortgage fraud
CHICAGO—The first Filipino American elected judge in Illinois was indicted by a federal grand jury for mortgage fraud April 12. The news hit the local community like a thunderbolt.
A celebrated and much-admired civic leader, Jessica Arong O’Brien, 49, was removed from the Cook County First Circuit Court as a judge for the small-claims court and was transferred to non-judicial work like officiating on marriages.
O’Brien, who was elected unopposed in 2012, is married to Atty. Brendan O’Brien who was also elected unopposed as Cook County judge in the last November elections. The couple has three daughters.
O’Brien’s rags-to-riches life story became a staple for media coverages, earning her accolades and awards from prestigious organizations. She also turned, for a while, into the mini-celebrity to be invited to deliver inspirational talks before professional and educational institutions.
Her indictment, which was carried by major news outlets, stated that O’Brien and a fellow defendant, Maria Bartko, 49, allegedly concealed relevant facts from lenders including Citibank, New Century Mortgage Corp. and First Magnus Financial Corp. to obtain more than $1.4 million in mortgages on two investment properties in Chicago that she and Bartko had purchased in 2004 and sold in 2007.
While O’Brien was working, then, as a special assistant attorney general for the Illinois Department of Revenue, she also reportedly held the position of chief counsel to the Illinois Lottery. She also worked as a part-time loan officer at Amronbanc Mortgage Corporation in Lincolnwood, Illinois where Bartko was a loan originator.
At the same time, the future judge also owned O’Brien Realty, LLC, where the indictment alleged, she falsely stated in her application that she had a profit of $100,000. In addition, she falsely stated that she made $6,800 a month as an Illinois Department of Revenue attorney.
Further, federal prosecutors alleged that she and Bartko omitted in their loan application a $260,000 loan that they owed on another property they had previously bought.
O’Brien and Bartko were charged with one count of mail fraud affecting a financial institution. Prosecutors alleged that O’Brien mailed a check for $297,208.96 via UPS to Chase Bank in relation to their scheme to defraud—a federal offense.
O’Brien was also charged with one count of bank fraud resulting from O’Brien’s false loan declarations that caused Citibank to give her a $72,000 loan for the purchase of one of the investment properties cited in her case against them—another federal violation, according to the prosecutors. Their statement in the indictment indicated that each carries a punishment of up to 30 years in prison.
Jessica Arong O’Brien came from Cebu to America at the age of 16. She has a bachelor’s degree in hotel and food administration from Boston University. She landed a top managerial position with a multinational company supervising thousands of employees involved in food preparation.
In 2008, she decided to change her career and later earned a Masters of Laws in Employee Benefits and Taxation from the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. She became the first Asian-American president of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois in 2015.
According to the website, 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. The foundation has been giving scholarship to law students from various ethnic communities.
Later, she 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.
O’Brien has served in roles where she oversaw prospective lawyers and helped select judges, including a term on the Illinois Supreme Court’s “Character and Fitness Committee,” which examines candidates who apply to join the state bar.
In a 2016 profile on O’Brien for ABC-Channel 7, her boss, Judge Timothy Evans, called O’Brien “open … optimistic … tenacious” and “committed to justice,” adding “we want to see more like her.”
O’Brien is to be arraigned at 10 a.m. (CST) on Thursday, April 20 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheila Finnegan. An executive review board headed by Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans with 17 Cook County judges as members, will subsequently decide if O’Brien be removed as a judge.
In another irony for the local community, the Fil-Am Lawyers Association of Illinois which O’Brien co-founded and headed, was holding a seminar on “How to avoid investment scams” on April 12—the day when she was indicted.
Efforts to get comments from Judge O’Brien and from her colleagues went unheeded. Other Filipino Americans expressed shock but many hoped that Judge O’Brien will emerge from this disturbing development in her life as an even better person.
Israel Desierto is another Filipino American judge at the Circuit Court in Cook County. Unlike, O’Brien, Judge Desierto was appointed to his position.