Review of “Operation Greylord: The True Story of an Untrained Undercover Agent and America’s Biggest Corruption Bust” by Terrence Hake (with Wayne Klatt)

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Operation Greylord is the riveting tale of how a few honest lawyers in the United States Attorney’s office in Chicago, with the help of the FBI, uncovered and prosecuted the almost unimaginable corruption in the lower reaches of Chicago’s criminal and traffic court system.  I say almost unimaginable corruption because I was exposed to some of it when I just graduated from law school.  

I began my practice of law as a litigator with a large firm in Chicago.  As a junior partner, I did not try cases, but appeared in pre-trial procedures in both state and federal court.  State and federal courts operated under different formal “Rules of Civil Procedure.”  They also operated under substantially different “informal” rules.  As far as I could tell, on the surface at any rate, the federal courts were totally honest and, for the most part, quite competent.  

In the state courts, however, competence among the judges and litigators varied tremendously.  For example, in one case in which I appeared, the opposing counsel was from one of Chicago’s most prestigious and capable firms.  In an informal discussion, the opposing lawyer told me he was delighted that we had drawn a particular judge [whose ironic nickname among experienced counsel was “Brains”] because the lawyer’s case was somewhat weak but the judge was almost sure not to understand the issues.    

I also noticed that experienced state court litigators sometimes (albeit rarely) included small bribes tucked into their filings so that the court clerks would call their cases first.  Petty corruption was more prevalent in the County Recorder’s office, where extra money would assure you that your deeds or lien claims would be promptly and correctly filed.

After reading Operation Greylord, I learned that the petty venality I observed was nothing like what was going on in low level criminal courts and traffic courts.  There, dozens of judges were on the take from dozens of sleazy lawyers.  Bribes of several hundred dollars, depending on the seriousness of the alleged offenses, were routinely passed from lawyer to clerk, who took his percentage before passing the bulk of the payment on to the judge.  

Terry Hake, the author, began as a naive 1977 graduate of Loyola College of Law and a new prosecutor in the State’s attorney’s Office. In 1980, he was recruited by the FBI to work in a major “sting” operation that would achieve national prominence as Operation Greylord. Hake reports:

“No one knew at the time how massive Operation Greylord would become, leading to an overhaul of the entire system, as well as three suicides and more than seventy indictments.”

He also allows:

“I think only someone as hopelessly naive and optimistic as I had been would have volunteered to put himself in such danger, and, in effect, give up his law career. I found myself a sheep wandering in a wilderness of wolves.”

Hake describes the difficult process by which he insinuated himself among some of the lower ranking shysters who participated in the rampant dishonesty in the criminal courts and gradually worked his way through the “system” ultimately to implicate more prominent lawyers and even judges while wearing a “wire.”  He writes that his cooperation with the Justice Department and the FBI earned him the obloquy of other lawyers, even honest ones.  Nevertheless, he persisted and finally prevailed, assisting in the conviction of numerous judges, clerks, and lawyers.  

The people of Chicago owe a debt of gratitude to Hake and the others who risked their careers, and even their lives (some of the corrupt lawyers and judges had mob connections) to rid the legal system of corruption.   Hake’s book is an easy read and well worth the effort. 

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by the American Bar Association, 2015

About rhapsodyinbooks

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3 Responses to Review of “Operation Greylord: The True Story of an Untrained Undercover Agent and America’s Biggest Corruption Bust” by Terrence Hake (with Wayne Klatt)

  1. Trisha says:

    It takes such courage to put yourself in this type of position even on a small scale. To do so as Hake did is almost unreal. Sounds like a great read.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    Wow, it sounds like you should write a book of your own. This story sounds fascinating!

  3. Beth F says:

    Fascinating! (as Kathy said)

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