By Cynthia Dizikes and Todd Lighty, Chicago Tribune reporters
12:50 PM EDT, April 28, 2013
J.F.'s marriage was crumbling in 2010, but he didn't want that public.
J.F. is a well-known Chicago politician, and when he and his wife ended up in divorce court, he asked that their names be kept secret to avoid a “media frenzy.”
Despite a rich tradition of openness in the U.S. court system, a Cook County judge allowed the couple to hash out the divorce privately, using just their initials: J.F. and K.F., case number 2010-D-3922.
The Tribune has learned that J.F. is John Fritchey, a county commissioner and former state lawmaker. K.F. is Karen Banks Fritchey, who comes from an influential political family.
John Fritchey is among an array of powerful and connected people — including politicians, federal and county judges, prosecutors and a billionaire CEO — who have sought to keep their family matters hidden while using public courts.
The Tribune has found the use of initials is one way that judges in Cook County's Domestic Relations Division have helped the wealthy, well-known and legally savvy hide their cases. Other times, the division's judges have taken court secrecy a step further, ordering at least 89 cases sealed since 2000.
Some of those cases involve Chicago Ald. Ricardo Munoz as well as a millionaire lawyer and the mother of former Chicago Bear Brian Urlacher's child. After inquiries from the Tribune, the judge who sealed Urlacher's ex-lover's divorce case moved to make it public, saying he'd made a mistake.
Legal experts said cases should remain open and identities should be shielded only in exceptional instances. Entire case files should not be hidden because individuals want privacy or because they might be embarrassed.
Nor should cases be concealed from the public just because they might cause the parties economic or professional harm, said lawyer Nancy Chausow Shafer, president of the Illinois chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
“If you avail yourself of the court system, you have to pay the price of it being public,” Chausow Shafer said. “If we start making exceptions for the rich and famous, it creates a dual court system, which goes against our populist belief of what a court should be, which is really justice for all without distinguishing between the rich and poor.”
But that is not always how justice plays out in Cook County courtrooms.
The Tribune previously reported that judges in the Chancery and Law divisions have sealed entire files for the rich and influential.
The newspaper found last fall that judges in the Law Division have hidden hundreds of cases from the public since 2000, including the disputes of a famous chef, other judges and a wealthy businessman. Suits filed in the Law Division include allegations of wrongful death, defective consumer products and medical malpractice.
Judges in the Chancery Division were no different, hiding 163 cases since 2000, including litigation involving Northwestern University, the Wrigley family and a former Chicago Bulls basketball player. Chancery judges handle a variety of legal matters, including contract disputes, mortgage foreclosures and big-money class-action lawsuits.
Judges in domestic relations hear some of the most heated and personal family matters. Couples go there to end their marriages, establish paternity or fight over the custody of their children. Around 28,000 domestic cases are filed every year in Cook County, where couples battle over money and possessions and sometimes make inflammatory allegations.
Nearly everyone's case is open to the public, unless you're someone like John Fritchey.
Fritchey was an assistant Illinois attorney general in the early 1990s when he met his wife, Karen. Her father is the late Samuel V.P. Banks, who was the de facto 36th Ward Democratic boss. Her uncle is former Ald. William J.P. Banks, who led the Chicago City Council's Zoning Committee.
Court records show Fritchey moved out of their house in October 2009, months after he lost the Democratic primary for Mayor Rahm Emanuel's old congressional seat.
After 18 years of marriage, Fritchey took his wife to court in April 2010. Fritchey, a Northwest Side Democrat who was running for county commissioner, asked Judge Carole Kamin Bellows to allow him and his wife to file all documents using their initials.
A 1987 state law allows lawsuits to be filed under a pseudonym or fictitious name if a judge finds “good cause.” The Illinois Supreme Court has yet to define “good cause,” a spokesman said.
A state appellate court in 1996 observed that federal courts allowed people to proceed anonymously in exceptional cases involving matters such as abortion, sexual orientation and mental illness or where there had been a threat of “real danger or physical harm.” The courts said embarrassment and financial harm were not good enough reasons to shield an individual's identity.
Fritchey told the judge that he and his wife should be allowed to use fictitious names in the divorce case because it could harm their family if their identities became public.
“If the identity of J.F. was exposed in connection with the allegations, it may cause a media frenzy which would be detrimental to the family relationship as well as the family finances,” argued Fritchey, who also is a lawyer.
Bellows granted Fritchey's request.
A year later, in April 2011, reporters learned a bank was seeking to foreclose on the couple's Lincoln Park home and that the couple owed more than $24,000 in unpaid property taxes and penalties. Fritchey said at the time that his financial troubles stemmed from his divorce.
What the politician didn't say was that if the public wanted to know about his divorce, it couldn't find the case by looking it up under his name.
Fritchey, who boasts on his website that he has pushed for openness in government, said in an interview last week that his divorce was widely known in political circles and reporters eventually found out about it. Fritchey said the judge did not grant him any favors.
“A legal determination was made,” he said. “It's an unfair characterization to say I had special treatment.”
Karen Banks said she did not object to using their initials. “He's an elected official, and we have a kid and I figured, OK, I don't have a problem with it,” she said.
Bellows, who has been a judge since 1986, also has hidden the divorces of a former high-level government employee, a fellow judge and Ald. Ricardo Munoz.
After Munoz's wife filed for divorce in September 2009, Bellows impounded the file and ordered it kept from public view.
Munoz, who champions himself as a reformer politician, has represented the 22nd Ward since 1993, when then-Mayor Richard Daley appointed him. While running for re-election in August 2010, Munoz disclosed to reporters that he had been an alcoholic, had entered rehab and was now sober. He did not mention his marital problems.
Munoz told the Tribune last week that he requested the sealing of the file because “it dealt with some very embarrassing drinking issues.” Munoz said he and his wife have reconciled.
“I'm a public figure and the court has rules, and I played by those rules,” Munoz said. “I didn't ask for any special treatment. … I chose to keep it private.”
Bellows also gave the highest level of secrecy to the 2006 divorce of Cook County workers Lance Lewis and Donna Dunnings. Their case was sealed in 2007, a month after Cook County commissioners approved Dunnings as the county's chief financial officer under her cousin, then-Board President Todd Stroger. Dunnings resigned about two years later amid controversy over the hiring of a steakhouse busboy with a criminal record.
Dunnings now works for the Cook County assessor's office as a financial research analyst. Neither she nor Lewis returned messages. Bellows declined to comment.
The well-connected were not the only ones to have their family squabbles hidden from the public. The well-off also benefited.
Billionaire H. Fisk Johnson, CEO of cleaning products giant S.C. Johnson & Son Inc., asked in 2003 that his divorce from Susan Lochhead proceed under their initials, H.J. and S.L.
Johnson, whose wealth Forbes this year estimated at $2.8 billion, told Judge Nancy Katz he had a vast estate and feared for the safety of his child. Katz agreed, and Johnson's divorce proceeded quietly for years.
It was not until June 8, 2006, when the divorce was final, that the public learned about the marital dispute. Media reports at the time said Johnson agreed to pay $38,000 a month in child support and more than $360,000 toward the purchase of a home for his ex-wife and their daughter, as well as other payments.
“This was a painful chapter in my life that was settled nearly seven years ago,” Johnson said in a statement. “And the primary reason for confidentiality was to protect our young child.”
Lochhead said “my No. 1 reason” for agreeing to the use of initials was for privacy.
Privacy was also the reason various lawyers gave for wanting their domestic cases hidden.
Judge Samuel Betar III in 2004 sealed the divorce between lawyer William Axley and his wife, lobbyist and former state Sen. Cheryl Axley. Cheryl Axley said her ex-husband wanted it sealed.
“He just wanted a lot of our financial information private,” she said. “Of course (I agreed). Why do I care?”
William Axley said the case was appropriately sealed. Betar said he could not recall why he sealed it.
Cook County prosecutor Holly Kremin and lawyer David Kremin also were given the same level of secrecy. Judge Jeanne Marie Reynolds sealed their divorce in 2009, saying it was in the best interests of the couple's child.
David Kremin's lawyer, Evan James Mammas, said there were concerns about personal financial information becoming public. David Kremin, at the time, had assets worth more than $7 million, according to court records.
Holly Kremin and her lawyer declined to comment.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Block also wanted his identity shielded in his 2010 parentage and support case because of the “sensitive nature” of his employment and that of the child's mother, lawyer Randi Ellias.
Judge Dominique Ross agreed and granted the request. Block and Ellias declined to comment.
Since 2006, one federal judge and four other judges also had their cases hidden from the public. Among them was Rodolfo Garcia.
Garcia was a state appellate court judge in 2007 when Bellows sealed Garcia's divorce from his wife. Garcia said in an interview he believes divorces are private matters.
“I don't think it makes much of a difference to the voting public whether my divorce case is sealed or unsealed,” he said. “(But I) see the point in trying to get uniformity. Everyone should be subject to the same standard.”
Garcia also did not report his divorce on his annual judicial disclosure form, a public report that judges must file. Garcia, who is now a Cook County judge, called it an oversight.
Other judges told the Tribune they asked that their identities be protected for safety reasons.
In such instances, legal experts said a judge's order should publicly disclose that a specific threat of physical harm exists. The mere fact that an individual has a high-profile job does not by itself reach that threshold, said Arthur Bryant, executive director of Public Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based group that has fought for openness in the courts.
“The law doesn't say that just because you are a public official, you are entitled to more secrecy,” Bryant said.
Cook County Judge James O'Hara used initials in 2011 when he filed for legal separation from his wife. O'Hara said in an interview that someone tried to break into his home in 2008 and that his cars were broken into several times after that. He said he had police protection and believed he was targeted as a judge.
O'Hara didn't share any worries with the Cook County sheriff's Judicial Security Unit, which is responsible for keeping judges safe, said spokesman Frank Bilecki. The unit responded to O'Hara's home on New Year's Eve 2008 when someone apparently smashed the rear glass door with a chunk of concrete.
“Judge O'Hara stated … that he did not feel himself or his wife to be in any kind of danger,” the sheriff's report said. No arrests were made, and O'Hara has not reported other problems to the sheriff, Bilecki said. O'Hara said he and his wife have reconciled.
Two other Cook County judges, Eileen Brewer and Margaret Brennan, had their entire domestic files sealed. Brennan and Brewer, who used initials in her filing, have said they had safety concerns.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Maria Valdez said it was heightened concern for her and her family's safety that led her to ask Cook County Judge Patrick Murphy to seal her 2012 legal separation from her husband, lawyer Alan Launspach.
Valdez said in an interview that her worries stemmed from 2005, when a gunman broke into the North Side home of federal Judge Joan Lefkow and killed her husband and mother.
The file “contains extensive personal information, my address, my accounts and so on,” Valdez said. “I have small children. I am concerned about my personal safety and the safety of my children.”
Launspach said there was no specific threat at the time against his wife and that he agreed to the sealing. He said the Tribune was invading his and Valdez's privacy, adding, “Judges deserve a degree of privacy.”
Bryant, of Public Justice, said judges and other prominent people should be treated the same as everyone else. He noted that sensitive information — such as financial accounts, home addresses and Social Security numbers — can be removed, but that the entire file and people's names should not be concealed.
“What happens in the court system is supposed to be open to the public,” Bryant said. “The public pays for it and needs to be able to monitor it and make sure it is working well and it's not corrupt.”
Judge: I ‘was wrong'
The Tribune asked Murphy for the order sealing the Valdez file, as the paper did earlier this year for 126 cases hidden in the Law and Chancery divisions. Chief Judge Timothy Evans and the presiding judges of those divisions declined to provide the orders, telling the Tribune to get a lawyer to file motions to intervene in each case.
Murphy, however, reviewed the Valdez case on his own. In an April 5 order that he made public, Murphy said he sealed the file because of “extensive identifying information” and Valdez's concern over the murders of another federal judge's family. Murphy did not mention a specific threat against Valdez. He declined to comment further.
Murphy also reviewed another domestic case he sealed, one involving Tyna Robertson, the mother of Urlacher's son.
Robertson's child custody dispute with Urlacher made headlines for years, generating stories about the star linebacker sending Robertson profane text messages and complaining that Robertson blocked his court-ordered visits with their son.
Robertson filed for divorce in 2011 from her husband, William Goehrke, a European basketball player at the time. Robertson asked that the entire divorce file be sealed, and Murphy agreed.
Court records show Robertson told Murphy she was concerned her children would be harassed or kidnapped because of her relationship with Urlacher.
“Safety was the main concern,” Robertson said in an interview.
Goehrke could not be reached for comment.
After reviewing the case, Murphy issued an order saying he “was wrong” in sealing it and that any private information could simply be removed from the file. He called Robertson and Goehrke to his Bridgeview courtroom on April 19 to voice any concerns they might have if the file became public.
Neither appeared, and Murphy unsealed it. Robertson later said she never received notice to be in court and was upset Murphy unsealed her divorce.
“It doesn't make any sense,” she said. “Why was my case set for a hearing to be opened and none of the other ones were?”
Tribune reporters Alex Richards and Rosemary Regina Sobol contributed.
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