He Is Called 'One of Most Corrupt Men' in City : Chicago Judge Admits He Took Bribes

Times Staff Writer

Circuit Judge John H. McCollom, accused of taking bribes as often as most people take vitamins, pleaded guilty Friday to racketeering, mail fraud and income tax charges, abruptly ending a weeklong trial.

McCollom, who took money to fix drunken driving cases, told U.S. District Judge James B. Moran that he accepted payoffs "but not with the frequency" that witnesses against him had contended.

He is the eighth judge--and the 56th person associated with the legal system--to be convicted thus far in the federal government's Operation Greylord, an investigation into widespread corruption in Chicago's courts. One judge has been acquitted.

'It Was Almost a Habit'

A federal prosecutor called McCollom "one of the most corrupt men to walk the streets of the city." The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Atty. Sheldon Zenner, said in his opening arguments that the judge took bribes "as regularly as you and I take vitamins," taking $100 and $200 bribes "hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times . . . day after day. . . . It was almost a habit."

McCollom's guilty plea ended a torrent of testimony depicting Chicago's Traffic Court as a money-generating machine for judges and corrupt policemen, fueled by bribe-paying lawyers.

One witness, who almost became a judge himself, testified that he paid bribes to 24 different judges, 11 of whom were implicated for the first time by his testimony.

The witness, Joseph McDermott, 69, said he had paid between 200 and 300 bribes to McCollom alone. McDermott said he also took bribes, when he was working as an assistant prosecutor assigned to the Traffic Court.

Elected to Court

McDermott was elected to the Circuit Court last November but resigned--before taking the judge's oath--because he was in jail for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury. He is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to racketeering conspiracy and income tax fraud, after being indicted in the Greylord investigation.

McDermott also named a current Illinois legislator as a recipient of bribes when he was a Chicago police officer assigned to Traffic Court.

Another witness, attorney William F. Reilly, testified that there were a dozen judges who routinely expected bribes and that McCollom once demanded a bribe in an obscene outburst in a court corridor. He quoted the judge as shouting: "I don't give a . . . about you. . . . I want the . . . money."

Two other witnesses, both former Chicago police officers, testified that they acted as conduits for bribes, passing them to several judges and "hundreds" of other police officers.

McCollom's surprise guilty plea came after it was disclosed that government evidence technicians had managed to reconstruct some of the judge's personal financial records from ashes in a 55-gallon barrel, where the judge's wife had burned trash.

A judge since 1971, McCollom heard cases in Traffic Court until 1982. Although he is not now assigned to a courtroom, he will continue to draw his $76,285 salary until he is sentenced on June 12. He faces a maximum of 186 years in prison and more than $200,000 in fines.

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