`Operation Greylord' flushing corruption from Chicago's courts. Incriminating tape recordings push latest judge to plead guilty

The game is called price-tag justice. All players knew it was illegal. They just hoped they wouldn't get caught. But the web of Operation Greylord, a five-year-old FBI undercover probe of corruption in the nation's largest court system, has already caught up a host of players and continues to draw in more.

So far the Cook County Circuit Court investigation has led to 18 convictions, including four judges.

Two of the judges joined the ranks of the guilty just within the last week. Former Chief Traffic Court Judge Richard LeFevour was found guilty by a jury of taking money to fix cases and help lawyers solicit clients.

Yesterday in Rockford, Ill., Circuit Judge Wayne W. Olson pleaded guilty to similar charges. What apparently sealed his plea was a recent court ruling that some 200 hours of FBI-recorded conversations in his chambers could be used as evidence in his trial.

One other judicial trial, that of Circuit Judge Reginald Holzer, is to begin Nov. 4. Judge Holzer is charged with taking almost $200,000 in unreturned loans and other payments from lawyers who belonged to some of Chicago's most prestigious law firms.

Rumors of corruption in the highly politicized courts of Cook County -- sometimes dubbed ``Crook County'' -- have been common here for many years. But it took Operation Greylord, the US Justice Department's most extensive judicial probe yet, to make the rumors official and initiate a crackdown.

``It has revealed to the public what every lawyer practicing there, who wasn't a fool, already knew,'' says George F. Galland Jr., president of the Chicago Council of Lawyers, a reform offshoot of the organized bar here. ``It's been a huge improvement to send several dishonest judges to jail.''

The legal action has also spawned some procedural reforms. Chief Circuit Judge Harry G. Comerford, who now tries to rotate more judicial assignments, last August appointed a Special Commission on the Administration of Justice in Cook County to recommend specific reforms.

Many of the commission's suggestions have yet to come. But the commission's recommendations to follow an Illinois Supreme Court ruling barring conversations between judges and only one party to a dispute, and to move parking-ticket responsibilities out of the traffic court have been accepted, says executive director Peter Manikas.

``I think there's been a remarkable change (for the better) in Chicago courts over the last year,'' says Betty Herrmann, executive director of the Cook County Courtwatching Project. Hers is an 11-year-old independent group of volunteers that tries to improve the courts by monitoring them closely.

She cites as progress the recently lengthened court day (to 4 p.m.) and a new orientation program, including discussions on ethics for incoming judges.

Also significant in her view is a marked fall-off in courtroom and hallway ``hustling'' of potential clients by lawyers. Her volunteers regularly took note of which attorneys solicited, where, and when. Those records were examined by the FBI during its probe.

``We used to see a very blatant kind of soliciting, but now it's almost gone,'' says Betty Herrmann.

Still, many argue that only continued vigilance and institutional reforms can make a lasting difference.

``In a big tough city like this there are lots and lots of people ready to bribe a judge, and with big money at stake . . . there's no lack of temptation for lawyers or judges,'' says George Galland.

Professional groups such as the Chicago Bar Association make some attempt to police their ranks by occasionally terming judges -- such as those named in the Greylord probe -- unqualified. But such criticism is doled out very cautiously. ``They probably get the worst ones out,'' says Peter Manikas. ``It helps a little but it's sure not enough.''

One much-discussed potential reform: merit selection of now-elected judges. Selection would be by a system of appointments from a group named by a blue-ribbon committee.

Strong opponents to such selection in Cook County include the Democratic Party and lawyers who represent minorities and feel they would fare better in elections. But the Chicago Council of Lawyers is a strong backer and president Galland views Greylord as helping fuel the fires for a fresh try.

The key remaining problem is the general lack of indignation by both the public and legal professionals over Greylord findings, says Better Government Association executive director J. Terrence Brunner.

``Convicting individual judges is not enough,'' insists Mr. Brunner. In his view, only a radical move, such as a campaign to put ``no'' beside the names of all judges on the ballot, would force responsible judges and lawyers to demand reform.

``There isn't any real pressure coming from anywhere to change the system,'' says Mr. Brunner. ``Unless that happens, it's going to be business as usual.''

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