Argument

Judges on the Take

How the FBI took on Chicago’s crooked courts.

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FBI Special Agent Ken Misner was doing his best to get arrested for drunk driving. Yet each time the police pulled him over, he escaped with a warning – no matter how erratically he had driven, and no matter how well he had faked his drunkenness. It was 1980, and the Chicago police simply didn’t arrest middle-aged white guys for traffic offenses.

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When his act failed yet again, he finally decided it was time to resort to desperate measures. He jumped from his car, leaped onto the hood of the police cruiser, and started screaming obscenities. The officer promptly yanked him down and began writing a summons. At last, thought Misner, mission accomplished. But as he read what the cop had written, he saw that he had caught another “break.” The charge was disorderly conduct, a minor offense that wouldn’t get him anywhere near traffic court.

Misner never succeeded in becoming a traffic court defendant, but fellow FBI agent Woody Enderson did, realizing an important milestone in the federal undercover investigation into Chicago’s court system known as “Operation Greylord.” Its name a reference to Britain’s lord-justices and their wigs, Greylord revealed a network of judges, lawyers, and clerks handling traffic cases and less serious crimes who sold judicial decisions for a price. “Operation Gambat,” which began as Greylord was winding down, disclosed even more appalling evidence of the rot infesting the courts, this time in situations involving much more serious crimes. It was launched when an attorney with a gambling problem – hence “Gambat” – brought the FBI evidence that organized crime figures had paid judges as much as $100,000 to acquit their underlings in murder-for-hire cases.

With the help of courthouse insiders who were fed up with corruption, FBI agents in Greylord and Gambat posed as defendants or crooked lawyers, worming their way into the confidence of judges, court staff, and prosecutors, and then offering them bribes to fix the cases which agents like Enderson had faked. Many took the bait; others were caught on tape bragging about past cases they had fixed. By the time the two investigations were over, 16 judges, some 100 lawyers and court staff, and several members of an organized crime family had been convicted of crimes ranging from bribery to racketeering to tax evasion. Rumors about judicial corruption in Chicago still circulate, but by all accounts it was no longer a way of life among the city’s judges and lawyers once Greylord and Gambat ended in 1990.

Corruption in the judiciary is particularly insidious, for it robs the government of a principal source of its legitimacy: the delivery of justice to citizens. It is also one the most difficult forms of corruption to prosecute. Judges seldom deal directly with those who want to buy a decision; the bribe is instead channeled through a clerk or other intermediary. If the deal is uncovered, the judge can claim he or she decided the case on the merits. The intermediary was simply conning the bribe payer. It is then a judge’s word against that of an admitted bribe-taker. What Greylord and Gambat showed, despite these challenges, was that there are ways to develop evidence sufficient to prove judicial corruption.

The techniques Greylord and Gambat pioneered can be applied in any court system in which corruption has taken root. Indeed, at the time of the two investigations, Chicago’s courts operated in an environment not unlike the one facing courts in developing countries today. 1980s Chicago was ruled by a single political party that controlled not only the executive and the legislature, but dictated who became a judge as well. Court staff were patronage employees, loyal to political bosses rather than the judges they ostensibly served, and there was little oversight of the courts by the press or civil society. Many knew the courts were corrupt, but rarely did anyone blow the whistle, and when they did, at most one or two individuals would lose their jobs.

Two factors in particular contributed to corruption in Chicago’s courts during the Greylord and Gambat era. First, the process for selecting judges did not screen out those with low ethical standards. Second, judges who were tempted to violate the public trust faced little risk of punishment if they did. With those prone to corruption placed where they could exercise great discretion over the lives and property of others, and where there was almost no chance they would be punished for abusing that discretion, corruption thrived.

Chicago judges were chosen in partisan elections, and the Democratic Party’s tight control over the electoral process virtually guaranteed that its nominee would win the general election. And party leaders decided who the Democratic nominees would be. They would meet with potential candidates and decide whom they would “slate,” or back, in the primary election. Party operatives would then to see to it that Democratic primary voters supported the slated judicial candidates.

During the decades leading up to Greylord and Gambat, the principal qualification for being slated for judicial office was loyalty and service to the Cook County Democratic Party “machine.” A 1970 analysis of a sample of Chicago judges by a longtime student of its politics found 12 former political operatives, two former law partners of the mayor, and 59 patronage hires in either the county prosecutor’s office or the city law department. Many of these individuals had risen through the ranks doing ethically questionable favors for party leaders, arranging government jobs for party supporters, and finding no-bid government contracts for campaign contributors. Others had succeeded thanks to outright corruption — fixing election outcomes through vote fraud. All prospective nominees had likely shown fidelity, more than once, to a fundamental rule laid down by Richard J. Daley, the party’s unquestioned boss during this era: keep your mouth shut if you see others stealing from the public.

Those who took the bench soon found they had little reason to fear punishment if they should decide to steal from the public themselves. Bribery requires that both the payer and the taker agree on a price. Because both have colluded, it thus rarely produces a victim willing to complain to the authorities. Moreover, until Greylord and Gambat, federal authorities had shown no interest in corruption in the local courts. Responsibility had been left to the Cook County State Attorney, the local prosecutor for the Chicago region. In the late 1950s, prosecutors there had convicted several court clerks for fixing cases in traffic court, but since then the office had not brought a single judicial corruption case.

One reason was that, at the time, Illinois law sharply restricted the prosecutor’s ability to place undercover officers in the courts or to eavesdrop on phone calls or meetings, techniques that proved invaluable in Greylord and Gambat. Furthermore, during much of the period the state attorney was a Democrat, and though no evidence has ever surfaced that Democratic state attorneys declined to pursue cases for political reasons, there were always suspicions that politics played a role – particularly after the party had prioritized defeating a Republican state attorney who investigated the traffic courts in the late 1950s.

What finally triggered Greylord and Gambat was the Watergate scandal — or, more accurately, the Department of Justice’s response to Watergate. The Department had always been responsible for prosecuting corruption cases involving federal government employees and had occasionally prosecuted state and local officials for corruption as well. But until Watergate, neither federal nor state and local public corruption had been a major concern. Watergate revealed an astonishing degree of corruption at the heart of the American system of government, and in its aftermath the Justice Department made public corruption at every level of government a priority.

Another important development for Greylord and Gambat was the success of Abscam, one of the first cases to result from prioritizing public corruption investigations. In Abscam, an FBI agent posing as a wealthy Middle Eastern investor offered bribes to public officials in return for help with various “investments.” The operation netted six Congressmen, one U.S. Senator, and numerous state and local officials on corruption-related charges. Abscam showed how easily corrupt public servants could fall for an undercover operation. It also showed that if an operation were properly conducted, it could withstand scrutiny from the judiciary. Although in the past courts had expressed doubts about the legality of undercover operations, no Abscam defendant got off by arguing the Department’s tactics were illegal or unethical.

Abscam coincided with the growing concern among federal prosecutors in Chicago about corruption in the city’s courts. FBI agent Randall Jordan had heard rumors that Wayne Olson, then a judge hearing narcotics cases, was selling acquittals, so Jordan talked to Thomas Sullivan, the U.S. attorney for the Chicago area, about opening an investigation. At about the same time, two of Sullivan’s assistants brought him evidence of widespread corruption in the courts. Sullivan approached then-State Attorney Bernard Carey to say he was considering opening a federal investigation, and Carey offered his support. Carey had grown increasingly frustrated as his office lost cases it should have won. The recent acquittal on murder charges of Harry Aleman, long known as a paid assassin for organized crime families, was particularly galling, given the strength of the prosecution’s evidence.

With Carey’s support, Sullivan decided to launch an undercover operation similar to Abscam. But first he needed Washington’s okay. A recent Congressional investigation had revealed that undercover operations in the 1960s and early 70s had been used to harass law-abiding civil society organizations, and the Department had promulgated regulations to prevent their abuse, one requirement being that senior Department officials approve and oversee all operations. A second rule was that undercover agents could not provoke or coerce a public official into accepting a bribe. Agents were allowed to dangle a bribe in front of an official, but if some form of pressure is involved, the official could avoid conviction by claiming entrapment.

Sullivan realized that an undercover investigation targeting the courts would likely raise unique issues involving legal ethics. American lawyers have a duty to be truthful when dealing with courts, while the planned undercover operation would likely entail deceiving at least some judges on some occasions. Sullivan was fortunate that the Illinois Supreme Court had grappled with the question of when a lawyer was justified in misleading a court to catch a corrupt official. Drawing on its decision, he crafted a series of guidelines to protect lawyers in the planned operation from a later ruling that their actions were unethical. Not only could such a ruling have barred them from practicing law, but a defendant might have used such a ruling to overturn a conviction.

The basic scheme in Greylord, later followed in Gambat, was simple. While wearing a recording device, FBI agents and those cooperating with the FBI would bribe clerks, and later judges, to fix the outcome of cases. The tape recording would provide evidence of the transaction independent of the agents’ testimony. With both the testimony and a recording to back it up, conviction would be certain.

At the outset, Sullivan and his team had to decide how to entice clerks and judges into accepting a bribe. At first they considered using real cases, thinking they would arrange with persons arrested for committing actual crimes to have them “retain” an FBI agent as their lawyer. The agent-lawyer would then offer to pay to have the client acquitted. They rejected this option, however, because of the risks. If a judge accepted a bribe to acquit a real defendant, the individual would go free, and when it was later revealed that the defendant had been freed as part of a ruse, the victims of the defendant’s crimes could be expected to complain loudly and bitterly. There was also the chance that, upon release, the defendant might commit additional crimes, again creating a public relations risk.

Prosecutors decided that the best course was to make up cases. Agents like Ken Misner were sent to Chicago with the mission of faking criminal conduct in full view of a police officer. The arrested agent would then “hire” another FBI agent to represent him, which was possible because many FBI agents were trained lawyers. The agent-lawyer would put out feelers offering to pay a bribe and see what happened. In some instances, the agent-lawyer might maneuver to have the case heard before a judge rumored to take bribes.

Because the initial focus of Greylord was on corruption in traffic court, the first group of phony cases arose from agents pretending to be drunk while driving. As Greylord expanded and prosecutors learned that the corruption was not limited to traffic matters, more serious crimes were faked. In one fabricated case, an FBI agent pretended to assault a second agent and the “injured” agent filed a complaint. Although in some instances the Chicago police officer making the arrest might be let in on the ruse, for confidentiality’s sake, those who arrested the “defendants” and prosecuted their “cases” were usually not told the case was fabricated.

Although the large majority of fabricated cases were criminal ones, once prosecutors discovered that judges handling cases arising from contract disputes and other civil matters were taking bribes too, such cases were faked as well. In one, two FBI agents played business partners who had a falling out and were suing one another. An agent-lawyer “represented” one of the partners and a lawyer acting as an informant represented the other. The informant passed the bribe offer through an organized crime figure with whom he had a relationship, and the judge ruled in favor of the “partner” the informant was representing.

The most damning evidence of corruption is almost always a recording of the corrupt official discussing what he or she will do in return for a bribe. While the first recordings were made by the FBI agent-lawyers of their discussions with clerks and other intermediaries, the FBI later began tapping judges’ phones as well, and in two instances planted listening devices in their chambers. In the United States, phone taps and listening devices require law enforcement agents to demonstrate, before a judge, “probable cause” to believe that the target is engaged in criminal activity. Although not a high threshold, given the sensitivity involved in asking one judge for permission to bug another judge’s telephone or chambers, the initial recordings the undercover agent-lawyers made were critical in securing a decision authorizing the bugs.

The big challenge in any undercover operation is finding someone those in the corrupt circle trust — someone who can introduce undercover agents into the circle and perhaps play the role of a bribe-payer himself. Judges and their intermediaries will be leery of those they don’t know and may halt their illegal activities if their suspicions are aroused. In fact, at one point in Gambat, a judge accepted $1,000 to acquit an FBI agent-defendant in a fabricated case, and then reversed course and found him guilty. When the FBI informant who had paid the bribe asked what had happened, the judge replied that the defendant “looked like an FBI agent.”

Law enforcement agencies often recruit someone already on the “inside” who is in some sort of trouble — usually facing a long prison sentence – and “flip” them, turning them into a government witness. When the only witnesses in a case are flipped informants, however, securing a conviction can be difficult. A jury may think the informant is exaggerating his or her testimony in return for a lighter sentence, or they may conclude that the informant illegally entrapped the defendant. The only acquittals in Greylord or Gambat came this way, when lawyers or clerks who had been flipped were the sole witnesses against the bribe-taker.

The ideal informants are those not under any pressure to cooperate and thus have no motive to puff up their testimony. Greylord and Gambat prosecutors were exceptionally lucky here, for the three key insiders had all volunteered to help out of disgust with the corruption they had witnessed, and none asked for anything out of the ordinary in return.

Terry Hake was the first. A young prosecutor repelled by the corruption he regularly witnessed in the criminal courts, he agreed to play the role of a corrupt local prosecutor when approached by federal authorities. To develop a cover story, his boss, State Attorney Bernard Carey, demoted him and assigned him to low-level drug cases, an assignment considered to have little prestige by prosecutors. Hake then let it be known how bitter he was about the demotion and soon worked his way into the confidences of narcotics court staff.

His first success was getting them to say enough on tape about corruption involving Judge Wayne Olson, who had earlier aroused agent Jordan’s suspicions, to persuade a federal judge to allow the FBI to plant a listening device in Olson’s chambers. The order authorizing the bug was precedent-setting – the first time ever an American judge had his office bugged. (Confronted with the evidence gathered from the bug, Olson pled guilty to racketeering, mail fraud, and extortion. He was ultimately sentenced to 12 years in prison and fined $35,000.)

Once Hake solidified his reputation as a “corrupt prosecutor,” the FBI set him up in private practice where he represented agent-defendants in dozens of fabricated cases. By the time his role was exposed in December 1983, when the first Greylord indictments were handed down, Hake had made 368 recordings running some 1500 hours that implicated a dozen judges and over 50 lawyers and court staff in corrupt dealings. Hake’s boyish looks and obvious disdain for corruption made him a particularly strong witness for the prosecution. He testified in 23 trials.

The FBI and the U.S. Attorney were equally fortunate with the two other principal informants in Greylord and Gambat, Illinois judge Brocton Lockwood and Chicago attorney Robert Cooley. Both were already known and trusted in courthouse circles, and, like Hake, both volunteered to develop evidence of corruption without asking a favor in return.

Lockwood was a judge from southern Illinois who had been detailed to Chicago to help clear the case backlog. Early in his first tour, he was asked by a friend of the judge who oversaw all traffic courts to “take care” of a particular case – a request he declined, correctly interpreting it as one to fix the case. During a second rotation, he overheard a lawyer berating a clerk for losing his client’s file. The clerk later explained to Lockwood that he had “lost” the file because the lawyer had not “tipped,” that is bribed, him to have the case heard. For the rest of that tour, and during subsequent ones in 1980, he plied clerks, prosecutors, and other court insiders about corruption. After much soul-searching, in 1981 he called Justice Department lawyers and offered to provide evidence of corruption in the courts.

Lockwood continued to gain the confidence of corrupt clerks and lawyers, buying them drinks and listening for hours, often with a hidden tape recorder running, as they bragged about their corrupt exploits. By the time his role in Greylord was revealed, he had passed along hundreds of hours of recordings in which lawyers, clerks, intermediaries, and judges admitted to fixing cases. While he testified in only a handful of cases, his efforts helped the FBI select sting targets, and his testimony against one high profile intermediary assured a conviction.

Cooley appeared unannounced at the FBI’s office in early 1986 as Greylord was winding down. For years he had consorted with organized crime figures, defending them and their associates, and bribing judges when necessary. By his count, he had paid some 30 judges to acquit his clients for offenses ranging from bookmaking to first-degree murder. In How Corruption Was King, his memoir, he explains that the memory of his late father, an honest Chicago cop, weighed on his conscience until he finally decided to turn on the mob. He offered to help the FBI develop evidence of their crimes, asking only that the FBI not use anything he told them to prosecute him.

It was the information he supplied that led to the opening of Gambat. During its four plus years, Cooley posed as a crooked lawyer “representing” FBI agents in fake criminal and civil cases. Because of his links with organized crime, corrupt judges were comfortable taking bribes from him directly. He was also able to get corrupt officials, lawyers, and even organized crime figures to discuss crimes they had committed while he wore a hidden recording device. The evidence he gathered was sufficient to secure a bribery conviction against the judge who had acquitted Harry Aleman in the murder case that had so angered State Attorney Carey. The evidence also led to Aleman’s conviction when he was retried on the murder charge, a precedent-setting case holding that double jeopardy, the right not to be tried twice for the same crime, does not apply when the judge in the first trial was bribed. (Once Cooley’s role in Gambat was revealed, he changed his name and went into hiding. His whereabouts to this day remain unknown.)

Greylord and Gambat each had their share of missteps. Some of these slip-ups were serious enough that they almost ended the operations before they started. At times, Lockwood and Cooley both came close to quitting because of the shabby way the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office treated them. The FBI frequently misled each one about who in government knew of their role in the operations. When both Lockwood and Cooley agreed to help the government, each had asked for a letter showing that the FBI and the prosecutors authorized their activities; in both cases it took months for the letters to come. Technical glitches also caused problems. Both investigations were conducted in pre-wireless days, when wearing a “wire” meant having a bulky tape recorder strapped to one’s body. The recorders were hard to conceal, and on several occasions Lockwood and Cooley were almost caught.

Other mishaps compromised the operations’ secrecy. Early in Greylord, a clumsy effort by FBI agents to get arrested on fake charges alerted some Chicago police to the operation. Later, the recruitment of an unreliable informant generated rumors that she was helping the FBI nab corrupt judges. In the midst of Gambat, a camera was discovered at a restaurant frequented by the organized crime figures being targeted.

Despite these minor failings, Greylord and Gambat were extraordinarily successful. Not only did they put more than 100 corrupt judges, lawyers, and court staff in prison, they opened a window on how corruption in the courts operates. They revealed, for example, the critical role of case assignment in a court corruption scheme. Even if only a few judges are corrupt, this matters little if those wanting to buy a verdict can get their case steered to a judge willing to sell one. Gambat and Greylord revealed that very few judges fixed murder cases, but, for reasons never explained, mobsters were able to get their cases before these judges.

Greylord and Gambat both spawned reform commissions. The usual post-corruption scandal commission has only sketchy data about what caused the corruption, and can thus say little more than transparency and accountability should be increased. By contrast, the Greylord and Gambat commissions had highly detailed information about how the corruption schemes operated and could therefore specify in detail what changes were needed and why. Until Greylord, an assignment judge had distributed incoming cases to different judges. Given the critical role of case assignment, the Greylord commission recommended, and the court implemented, a system in which most cases are assigned randomly by computer. Other recommendations included changes in how parking fines were collected, stepped-up surveillance of judges’ and lawyers’ ethics, new rules to restrict informal contacts between judges and defense counsel, and the introduction of citizen oversight of court administration.

The most troubling revelation was how hard it can be to purge corruption from the courts once it is ingrained. Although Greylord indictments were handed down with much fanfare in late 1983 and early 1984, and by spring 1984 defendants were either pleading guilty or being found guilty at trial, judges continued accepting bribes as late as February 1986. Peter Manikas, director of the Gambat reform commission, conducted jailhouse interviews with several Gambat defendants, and took the opportunity to ask them why, in the face of the Greylord arrests and convictions, they hadn’t stopped taking bribes. The uniform answer: they couldn’t afford to. They had become so used to the lifestyle bribery financed – expensive homes, lavish vacations, mistresses – that they simply couldn’t quit taking the money.

Yet Greylord and Gambat offer an important lesson: Corruption in the courts can be tackled. A well-planned undercover operation can round up corrupt judges, court staff, and lawyers. Determined reformers can clean up the judicial system, expel the crooks, and restore government’s obligation to provide fair and impartial justice to citizens. If it could be done in Chicago, it can be done elsewhere. Indeed, the inspiration that Greylord and Gambat offer to reformers in other countries may ultimately turn out to be the two investigations’ most important legacy.

In the photo, Brocton Lockwood (center), the judge who wore a wire and became a principal informant for the FBI in Operations Greylord and Gambat, addresses reporters at the Marion Civic Center in Marion, Illinois in 1983. 

Photo credit: The Southern Illinoisan File Photo

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