Chicago indictments cap 3-year corruption probe in Cook County courts

Does the nabbing of judges and lawyers who violate not only the ethics of their profession but the law have a cleansing, reforming effect? That is clearly the hope of federal officials in handing down the first round of indictments this week of judges, lawyers, police, and court clerks after a three-year probe of corruption in Chicago's Cook County court system.

Many Chicagoans had long suspected that money could buy either an innocent verdict or an acceptably brief sentence.

Most had at least secretly hoped that their imagination was larger than reality.

But the results of Operation Greylord, as the investigation came to be known, confirmed that corruption in the Cook County judicial system was fairly widespread.

Overall, the effect of the indictments is seen as a positive one.

''Cook County courts have long had a reputation for being seamy and crooked and I applaud this long overdue action,'' says Terrance Norton, general counsel of the Better Government Association (BGA) here. ''I think it will have the effect - at least for awhile and I hope for a long time - of making people more honest.''

In general, spotlighting and weeding out corruption in the courts is rating conservative kudos among legal organizations.

About an hour after the Dec. 14 indictments were officially announced, the Chicago Bar Association (CBA) endorsed the effort to punish those who have accepted bribes.

But it warned strongly against any accompanying tendency to condemn the whole judicial system.

It is not just the pending nature of the legal action involved which makes the CBA cautious and rates a ''no comment'' from its national affiliate, the American Bar Association.

Operation Greylord, so named for the less than black-and-white status of the court area under investigation and the English title for judge, has been controversial ever since leaks from unidentified sources about individuals involved began to surface in Chicago newspapers a few months ago.

Not only did a number of lawyers, concerned that they might yet be named in the investigation, race to authorities to offer information in exchange for immunity or a reduced penalty.

It also became quickly apparent that ethically and legally questionable undercover tactics were employed to pin down the indictments.

Among them: sending some 200 bogus cases through the judicial system and bugging judicial chambers. In one instance, a downstate Illinois judge cooperating in the probe put a tape recorder in his cowboy boot to take down verbatim the self-incriminating conversation of a lawyer who had an office in the Chicago's Traffic Court Center.

The BGA's Mr. Norton, a former federal prosecutor in the organized crime section, admits to divided feelings about the merits of using such tactics.

''Undercover action isn't called for very often, but when a situation has gone on this long, it requires something like this,'' he says. ''I'm glad the government was creative, and I don't know how else you would have gotten at this.

''But there are some counter considerations. While I think undercover tactics are unqualifiedly appropriate incases involving organized crime and drugs, I am a little concerned in this kind of probe about the bugging of judicial chambers and putting phony cases on a wholesale basis through the system. Can you play games with the court system or does that, in itself, affect it? And we won't know for awhile what impetus (for this) came from crooked lawyers and what role the federal government played.''

The federal grand jury action was announced here by US Attorney Dan K. Webb, whose predecessor Thomas P. Sullivan had started the investigation, and Chicago FBI chief Edward D. Hegerty.

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