It was one of the most important cases in the annals of public corruption investigations in the United States.
On March 15, 1984, in a federal courtroom in Chicago, a jury found Harold Conn guilty on all four counts of accepting bribes to be passed on to Cook County, Illinois judges as payment for fixing tickets. The evidence? He had been caught live on FBI tapes.
This “bagman” had been the deputy traffic court clerk in the Cook County judicial system, and he was the first defendant to be found guilty in a mammoth sting investigation of crooked officials in the Cook County courts.
It was called Operation Greylord, named after the curly wigs worn by British judges.
And in the end—through undercover operations that used honest and very courageous judges and lawyers posing as crooked ones and with the strong assistance of the Cook County court and local police—92 officials were indicted, including 17 judges, 48 lawyers, eight policemen, 10 deputy sheriffs, eight court officials, and one state legislator. Nearly all were convicted, most of them pleading guilty. It was an important first step to cleaning up the administration of justice in Cook County.
That’s really the whole point. Abuse of the public trust cannot and must not be tolerated. Corrupt practices in government strike at the heart of social order and justice. And that’s why the FBI has the ticket on investigations of public corruption as a top priority.
Historically, of course, these cases were considered local matters. A county court clerk taking bribes? Let the county handle it.
But in the 1970s, state and local officials asked for help. They didn’t have the resources to handle such intense cases, and they valued the authority and credibility that outside investigators brought to the table. By 1976, the Department of Justice had created a Public Integrity Section, and the FBI was tasked with the investigations, focusing on major, systemic corruption in the body politic.