Cook County judges have helped the wealthy, well-known and well-connected to keep their family matters hidden while using the public's courts, according to a Tribune investigation. (Posted: April 27, 2013)

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.