Chicago Judge on Trial--a Picture of Greed, Graft
Even for corruption-jaded Chicagoans, the bribery trial of Richard F. LeFevour, now playing daily in a federal court here, is sensational.
LeFevour is the fourth and highest ranking judge to stand trial as a result of Operation Greylord, an unprecedented four-year-long FBI undercover investigation of the Cook County court system. So far, that inquiry has resulted in the indictments of 28 persons, including six judges and 13 lawyers.
This trial, coupled with testimony and court documents resulting from previously successful Greylord prosecutions, is providing an extraordinary picture of a judicial system compromised by greed and graft.
“Judge Richard LeFevour rarely saw a week go by without receiving cash bribe payments,” federal prosecutor Daniel E. Reidy told the jury in opening arguments.
Last week, a string of witnesses gave testimony suggesting that LeFevour, the former chief judge of Chicago’s traffic court, operated his own private parking-ticket collection agency, offering 50% discounts to persons with large numbers of tickets. The government alleges that the judge pocketed the fines they did pay and used his authority as chief judge to clear their court records. The alleged scheme, the government says, resulted in substantial losses to Chicago’s municipal treasury.
LeFevour ran the scheme, government prosecutors told the jury, with three former Chicago policemen--one of them the judge’s cousin and boyhood buddy. They have pleaded guilty to related charges and are cooperating with the Justice Department.
The alleged scheme, as described by prosecutors, was pure Chicago:
Citizens would receive letters from the Chicago Police Department telling them that warrants had been issued for their arrest because of the number of parking tickets they had. The letters contained a phone number at police headquarters. One of the policemen involved in the scheme regularly answered that phone and would offer to help callers “work out their problem.” They were told to report to a pillar in the corridor of Chicago’s traffic court and to bring cash equaling about half of what they actually owed.
Witnesses testified that they were met at the pillar by one of the three policemen involved in the alleged scheme. They said he would take their cash, put it in a white envelope and head down a corridor to an office in the court. When the policeman returned, the citizen would be given a computer printout of the tickets he owed initialed, the prosecution contends, by the judge and be told that the matter was settled.
The government contends that for his discount ticket service, the judge received, in addition to cash, the use of new automobiles, a $16,000 loan that he never repaid from the owner of an auto leasing firm, and a copying machine from an office equipment company whose servicemen regularly accumulated parking violations.
Other charges against LeFevour are more serious.
In his opening arguments to the jury, Reidy said the government will introduce evidence that LeFevour once routinely reduced charges in drunken driving and reckless driving cases for $100 each, allowing drivers accused of dangerous driving to keep their licenses.
Reidy also told the jury that later, when LeFevour became chief judge of all municipal courts in Chicago, where minor civil and criminal matters are heard, the judge devised a new money-making scheme.
For $2,500 a week, Reidy said, LeFevour allowed a “club” of five lawyers to hustle cases in courts at district Chicago police stations, soliciting clients in violation of local codes of legal ethics and Illinois court rules.
The deal gave those lawyers access to court records showing how much defendants had posted in bail bonds. Lawyers generally agreed to represent defendants in exchange for their bond refunds--something that was almost always assured because most of the cases involved would have been dismissed even without attorneys present.
This scheme, the Internal Revenue Service estimates, earned the five lawyers more than $500,000. Some of those attorneys are expected to testify for the prosecution in the trial of LeFevour, who maintains his innocence. The trial, now in its third week, is expected to end in July.
Network of Corruption
The charges and testimony against LeFevour represent part of much more extensive charges depicting a network of corruption in the Cook County courts, which make up the nation’s largest unified court system.
Some examples of other charges:
--In the trial of former Circuit Judge John M. Murphy, it was disclosed that the judge fixed more than 100 drunk driving cases for $100 each. Murphy was convicted of 24 counts related to taking bribes and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was convicted, in part, because he had been secretly recorded making agreements to fix cases with an undercover FBI agent who had infiltrated the Cook County criminal justice system, posing first as a corrupt prosecutor and then as a corrupt defense attorney.
--A former narcotics court judge boasted in conversations recorded by the FBI that he could make $1,000 a week fixing cases. Transcripts of the recordings have been filed in court before the judge’s coming trial. It is believed to be the first time that the FBI bugged the private chambers of a judge.
--Lawyers testified that they regularly kicked back one-third of their legal fees to former Circuit Judge John Devine when he sat in auto theft court. One lawyer, Martin Schachter, testified that in exchange for the kickbacks, Devine appointed him to represent clients and then ordered the defendants’ bond money turned over as Schachter’s fee. “Whatever cases you have in this courtroom, one-third goes to me. Those are the rules,” Schachter testified the judge once told him. Devine was convicted of 47 charges related to bribery and extortion. He is serving 15 years in prison.
Schachter pleaded guilty to related charges and was placed on probation because of his cooperation with federal authorities.
Since the first Greylord indictments, 17 of the 28 charged have either pleaded guilty or been found guilty in trials. Three, including one judge, have been acquitted. However, the acquitted judge was later suspended for one month for improprieties. And an acquitted court bailiff was indicted and convicted of violations of state laws in connection with Greylord.
Six Judges Indicted
In all, six judges and 13 attorneys have been indicted and the names of other judges allegedly involved in improper conduct have turned up in testimony. Federal sources said additional indictments are being considered.
Although the reaction of local court and bar association officials so far has been relatively low-key, federal judges are making it clear how they feel about the continuing scandal.
“Judicial corruption is an unthinkable crime,” U.S. District Judge Susan Getzendanner said when she sentenced Devine. “It is a stunning crime. It harms the public, and it harms me and my fellow judges. I’m not going to make any speeches, but your crime was despicable.”