Electronic Filing Lags in Cook County Court Cases

Tue, 02-21-2012

Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown, who is seeking her fourth term in office, often talks about how she has modernized the technology in her office, which maintains the records for one of the largest court systems in the country.

But even as court systems elsewhere move ahead in the critical area of electronic filing–or allowing people to submit documents such as motions and pleadings and pay related fees over the Internet– Cook County has lagged behind. And executives of the company responsible for the program, On-Line Information Services of Mobile, Ala, have been among the top contributors to Brown’s political campaigns, according to state records.

Once fully executed, the electronic filing program could be worth $30 million a year to On-Line Information Services (OLIS), according to Brown’s political opponent, Ald. Ricardo Munoz. But progress on the program has been so slow that OLIS is unlikely to achieve that revenue level any time soon.

Cook County has had a pilot program to allow electronic filing for commercial litigation cases in the law division since May of 2009, through OLIS. But the Illinois Supreme Court has not allowed Cook County, now one of five counties in the state with some form of electronic filing, to expand the pilot to other types of cases. This means the vast majority of filings in Cook County are still done on paper.

The Supreme Court has not commented publicly on why electronic filing has not been allowed to expand in Cook County, although last June, Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride created a new committee that is reviewing a broad range of e-business applications statewide, including electronic filing.

Last year, more than one million new cases were filed in Cook County Circuit Court, according to Brown’s office. Brown reported that 2,434 filings were completed electronically from the start of the electronic filing pilot in 2009 through Oct. 31, 2011. Because cases typically produce anywhere from dozens to hundreds of filings, those filed electronically have amounted to only an very small percentage of the total.

In DuPage County, by contrast, a leader in e-filing in Illinois, about 65 percent of all civil cases are now filed electronically, according to the county clerk of circuit court, Chris Kachiroubas. The federal court system also has a highly-regarded electronic filing system, which covers most district, bankruptcy and appellate courts.

Brown has identified electronic filing as a top priority and blames the hold-up on the state Supreme Court, which must grant approval for circuit courts to do electronic filing. She says it’s unfair to compare Cook County to DuPage because Cook handles several times the number of cases as DuPage, which had 214,586 new cases filed in 2011.

“With DuPage being so much smaller than Cook County, it appears that the Administrative Office used them kind of like a pilot for the state,” Brown said. She added that when she took office in 2000, DuPage was also further ahead in having divisions automated and ready to do electronic filing.

But at times, Brown has given the impression that electronic filing in Cook County is moving along quickly. In April of 2011, for example, Brown announced in a press release that the state Supreme Court had given her approval to expand electronic filing to “all civil case types in the law division” except for condemnation cases and “to all civil case types in the clerk’s office.” The release said that Brown made the announcement to more than a dozen state and local bar association presidents.

But nearly a year later, the Supreme Court still has not granted Brown permission to expand the pilot program.

Supreme Court spokesman Joseph Tybor declined to comment on why Cook County’s request to expand its electronic filing pilot to other types of cases has not been approved.

In other counties, the Supreme Court has appeared eager to embrace the possibilities of electronic filing and other technological advances. In addition to DuPage County, the Supreme Court last August approved a pilot project in the Second Judicial District Appellate Court that will allow the official record of appealed cases from DuPage and Ogle counties to be accessed on-line. And last month, Kilbride announced a pilot project for electronic filing for the state Supreme Court, which will allow the Illinois Attorney General, State Appellate Defender’s Office and the Office of the Illinois State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor to electronically file motions, briefs and other documents on-line.

OLIS, and people who work for the company have contributed at least $26,900 to Brown’s campaigns since 2003, according to state records. Of that, the company donated $13,400, the three principals of the company, Steven Olensky, Neal Buchman and Steve Windom, a former lieutenant governor in Alabama, contributed $8,000 and Paul Pinckney III, who is identified in state contribution records as a manager for OLIS, contributed $5,500.

Bridget Dancy, Brown’s chief information officer who served on the evaluation committee that chose OLIS, and who also serves as a village trustee in Matteson, received $500 each from Buchman, Windom and Olensky in January of 2009, in according to campaign finance reports.

In April, 2010, the clerk’s office requested that the county commissioners extend OLIS’s contract, which was set to expire June 6, 2010, for two more years. The extension was granted. Enza Raineri, a spokeswoman for Brown, said the OLIS contract had nothing to do with Dancy running for office, and that Dancy had not thought about running for office until six months after OLIS’s contract with the county began.

Asked about the contributions to Brown and Dancy, OLIS President Steven Olensky said in an email “Our contributions were legal and appropriate. During the work done under contract, USCourts.com principals have had the opportunity to work closely with Clerk Brown and CIO Dancy and have come to respect them and the contributions they are making to their communities. Any contributions made to their candidacies were based upon support for their positions and efforts to work for the community.” Olensky also said Pinckney was not affiliated with OLIS.

OLIS was awarded the contract through a request for qualifications process, which gives the purchaser great leeway in choosing to whom to award the contract.

Brown said OLIS was chosen by the evaluation committee in her office and approved by the county’s chief information officer at the time. Brown said she played no part in the awarding of the contract or of any contracts in her office.

“I deliberately do not participate in any selection because I want it to be my staff, the people that are experts in the process, to make the decision,” Brown said. “I made the decision from the very beginning of my administration not to participate.”

Brown said she learned that that OLIS had contributed to her campaign when people started asking her questions about the contract. She noted that other potential vendors had also contributed to her campaigns, although she declined to say which ones. She said the campaign contributions played no part in the awarding of the contract to OLIS.

Brown said that in issuing a request for qualifications, her office sought a company that would provide electronic filing services to the county at no cost to the county. That model shifts the costs of electronic filing to the users of the system, whereas in other models, the clerk of the circuit court pays the vendor in order to allow users free access to electronic filing.

Users in Cook County pay a $4.95 convenience fee to file cases electronically, and an additional 4 percent to use their credit cards, the same percentage charged to those who file in person and use credit cards.

According to OLIS’s contract with Cook County, the clerk’s office should be receiving two-thirds of the convenience fee– initially expected to amount to $61,292 in the first two years of the contract for the county–but Brown said she is awaiting approval from Chief Judge Timothy Evans to start collecting that money. Brown said OLIS is holding over $8,000 owed to the clerk’s office. Evans did not respond to a request for comment.

“Dorothy Brown has given a giant, sweetheart, no-bid e-filing deal to this company represented by a Republican lobbyist from Alabama,” said Munoz, the alderman who is running against Brown in the Democratic primary. “This is the largest pay-to-play example since the Blagojevich era.”