Fighting for her job, Cook County judge says she didn’t mean to mislead

Cook County Judge Beatriz Santiago pleaded for her job Tuesday, saying she had not intentionally deceived her mortgage lender on sworn documents.

The judge contended at a daylong hearing before the Illinois Courts Commission that she had been nothing more than careless when she claimed on mortgage refinance forms that the Humboldt Park house she owned was her primary residence. “I know I did something wrong, but I didn’t intentionally do something wrong,” Santiago said to the commission. “I know I could have been a lot more careful.”

The seven members of the commission will now decide what if any discipline to impose, ranging from reprimand to removal from office.

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Santiago is the first Cook County judge to face discipline in two years. She said the experience “was very humiliating, it was very embarrassing,” She added, “I practically feel like my career is pretty much ruined.”

Injustice Watch reported in November on problems in the process of disciplining judges. Most cases end in reprimand, and many cases drag on for months or years.

At issue in Santiago’s case is where she lived when she was elected to Cook County’s sixth sub-circuit in 2012. An opponent in the race sought to disqualify Santiago, contending that she lived at the home she owned on Spaulding Avenue that was outside the district. But at a hearing before the Cook County Officers Electoral Board,  Santiago testified then that she lived at her parents’ home located inside the Northwest Side’s sub-circuit.

Medill Watchdog and WGN-TV reported in December, 2013 on the conflict between what Santiago said at the hearing and on the mortgage refinance documents, which were prepared after Santiago had won office. More than a year after the report, the Judicial Inquiry Board filed a complaint against Santiago that led to the hearing Tuesday.

She testified to the commission that she did not live at the Spaulding property when she refinanced her home in August, 2013, and that it was only occupied by her furniture, her two cats, and, at times, her adopted brother and sister.

But on the refinance documents, all of which bore her signature, she claimed the Spaulding property was her primary residence, qualifying her for a homeowner exemption with a lower interest rate. Santiago said she was advised by her attorney that because she was not renting out the property she could claim a homeowner exemption, even though she didn’t live there.

Contrary to the inquiry board’s claim that Santiago violated the state’s judicial canons, she testified she had signed all the documents in a rush without reading their content, and therefore did not intentionally lie to her mortgage company. Commission member Aurora Austriaco noted Santiago had three opportunities to review the documents. Had she really failed to do so all three times?, Austriaco wondered. Yes, replied the judge.

It wasn’t until she saw the Medill Watchdog/WGN Investigates report that that she realized her error, Santiago testified. It was then that she tried to “rectify the situation” by reaching out to American Equity Mortgage roughly two months after seeing the news story.

Santiago said she told the lender that the Spaulding home was no longer her primary residence, without mentioning that also was true when she filed for refinancing. “It did not occur to me,” she testified.

Santiago’s attorney, George Collins, weaved a narrative characterizing Santiago as a woman with little financial and real-estate knowledge, citing a “D” she had received in a real estate class while she attended John Marshall Law School. Collins drew parallels to a similar case of judicial wrongdoing from the 1980’s where a judge received a reprimand, the lowest form of judicial discipline.

Inquiry board attorneys John Gallo and Karim Basaria contended that Santiago had made more than a mere accident.

“[Santiago] does not need a Real Estate license to understand and read,” said Basaria, noting that she had signed multiple documents on multiple occasions; she had seen a mortgage agreement before in 2005 when she bought the home; and she had earlier faced the residency challenge before the election board.

Since the Medill Watchdog/WGN Investigates report, Santiago sold the Spaulding property and purchased a new home within the sixth sub-circuit, she said.

Santiago was supported by a series of character witnesses, including Circuit Court Judges Carl Boyd, Sandra Ramos, and Kimberly Lewis; Assistant State’s Attorney Nicole Patton; and Larry Kugler, who worked as a colleague to Santiago in the Cook County Public Defender’s Office.

The Illinois Courts Commission has one other pending case to be decided. They have yet to rule in the case of two McLean county judges that the Judicial Inquiry Board charged in 2014 with breaching the judicial canons involving an illicit affair that was discovered in February 2011.

The last Cook County judge to face the Courts Commission was Cynthia Brim, who was brought up on charges after she was arrested for battery of a sheriff’s deputy at Daley Plaza. The board removed Brim from office in May, 2014, citing her mental unfitness to serve as judge.

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