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Leading Chicago judge guilty of fraud

Judicial corruption is widely viewed as a tough charge to prove. But the federal undercover probe into the extent of such corruption in Chicago's mammoth Cook County Court system, called Operation Greylord, has amassed enough evidence over the last few years to net a considerable number of jury convictions. Since investigations began in 1980, 28 indictments have been handed out -- with 17 lawyers and court personnel, including three judges, being convicted.

The latest coup for federal prosecutors: the conviction on all 59 counts of mail fraud, racketeering, and income-tax fraud of the highest-ranking judge to be charged in the Cook County probe.

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Tall, gray-haired Richard F. LeFevour, former chief traffic court judge of the Cook County Circuit Court system, was charged with taking thousands of dollars of bribes and several free cars to dismiss parking tickets and reduce penalties in drunken-driving cases over a 14-year period. He is now on leave of absence as presiding judge of the First Municipal District of the Cook County system, which covers Chicago courts. Judge LeFevour faces maximum penalties of $103,000 in fines and 300 years in prison.

The defense insisted the apparent gap between the judge's spending and his assets could be explained largely by cash gifts from his six sons and race-track winnings. Special US Attorney Dan K. Webb, leaning heavily on the testimony of three former Chicago police officers who claimed to be bagmen for the judge, countered that LeFevour had ``peddled'' justice as casually as if it were apples.

Northwestern University Law Prof. Ronald Allen says the latest Greylord decision should work to deter any other judges who may be similarly tempted.

``It's very hard to convict judges, but these kinds of prosecutions have made it clear that it's not impossible,'' he says.

The undercover nature of the Greylord investigation -- involving lawyers, judges, and FBI agents as participants in bogus cases and bugging efforts -- has been controversial. But Professor Allen argues that if such operations are morally justifiable in breaking up cocaine dealings, the same ought to be true in testing judicial ethics.

The Greylord probe is likely to spark a renewed effort in Illinois to replace elected with selectively appointed judges. It may also spur efforts to boost funding for the state's judicial review body.

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