A Police Department Held Hostage by Politics: A History Part 4
Editor's Note: The passage of time has not lessened the evils of political partisanship
which inevitably impacts law enforcement and the administration of justice in the Cook
County Sheriff's Office and Police Department. With a few notable exceptions, the Sheriffs
who span the full gamut of 160 years of Cook County history have served their political
cohorts and themselves better than the general public. The historic struggle between
reform, political machinery, and the pull of organized crime "fixers" is a
recurring theme when one reviews the record of the Cook County Sheriff's Office and the
highly sensitive Police Department. The scandal, the infamy, and the corruption associated
with the administration of this office down through the years is the subject of a
continuing IPSN four- part focus report. The concluding segment picks up the story in the
middle of the Richard Ogilvie regime, when high ideals and reform pointed the way to a
brighter future especially within the Cook County Police Department. The optimism of these
years quickly faded in the 1970s and 1980s culminating in the "Operation
Safebet" investigations which revealed a constant pattern of corruption, political
backsliding, and worse, organized criminality. All to the detriment of reputable law
The Return of the Insider: Ogilvie to Sheahan, 1962-1995
Richard Ogilvie, a Purple Heart veteran of World War II who won critical acclaim as a Federal prosecuting attorney directing the government's drive against the infamous Tony Accardo, and other organized crime bosses in Chicago, was elected Cook County Sheriff in 1962.
Fresh from victory over his Democratic opponent - former F.B.I. Agent Roswell Spencer in the general election, Ogilvie moved steadily forward with his reform agenda by securing passage of legislation that transformed the Cook County Police Department force from a political patronage plum to a respected, professionally led and trained law enforcement agency. The three-member Merit Board, created at the request of Ogilvie by the General Assembly in June 1963, was to be the Cook County Police Officer's first line of defense against being exploited by the politicians as a patronage tool. But as time would prove the Merit Board became a facade for the usual manipulations and many police officers seeking higher rank or special positions went along with the game.
Ogilvie surrounded himself with a team of law enforcement professionals blending practical street experience and academic perspective. Arthur J. Bilek, now a university academician who logged nine years in the Chicago Police Department before taking leave of his post in 1962, was appointed Chief of the Cook County Police. Bilek's rich background in training and administration lent itself to the task at hand. James T. McGuire, another veteran of the Chicago P.D. who went on to become Superintendent of the Illinois State Police, was named Deputy Chief. Captain Thomas Mahon, a street-wise cop with a fearless reputation, was appointed Commander of Division One, in Niles covering the northern half of Cook County.
Under Ogilvie's guiding hand, the Cook County Police forged a "cooperative" agreement with the Illinois State Police where the two agencies shared resources and pooled talent for a common cause. It was the first time two major law enforcement agencies in the State of Illinois signed a formal cooperative agreement of this nature to enhance overall effectiveness.
The procedural reforms, though not readily apparent to the average citizens of Cook County, professionalized the department in significant ways that the rank-and-file officer could appreciate and ultimately brought public respect. Ogilvie's reputation among the voters as a no-nonsense leader and syndicate foe was firmly planted in 1964 when he led an "occupying army" of police officers into the once and always notorious Town of Cicero. Raids on syndicate establishments were conducted around the clock - the all night gin dives and strip clubs were closed for the time being, and the "outfit" bosses who called Cicero home and the complacent local police officials were put on notice that the Sheriff was fully intent upon seeing a new day dawn in proper law enforcement.
But Sheriff Ogilvie had one term to serve. Only four years in office to see through his plans. Under the existing Illinois law, he could not succeed himself following the completion of a four-year stint.
Ogilvie stood at the political crossroads in 1966, because of the sell-out of trust and the embarrassment caused him by Chief Investigator Richard Cain, whose complicity in the 1963 Louis Zahn drug heist, on-going extortion's, and questionable and sometimes phony raids resulted in a prison term. Cain blind-sided Dick Ogilvie, ignoring the advice of veteran police officers who warned him that this guy was a bad seed, a rogue cop and possibly the syndicate's law enforcement "mole." Even though Ogilvie fired Cain, once these revelations hit the press political opponents made it a campaign issue in 1968 when the former Sheriff narrowly defeated Samuel Shapiro for Governor of the State of Illinois, after two years as President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
Former F.B.I. Agent Joseph Woods, best known as the brother of President Richard Nixon's personal secretary Rosemary Woods, was picked by and succeeded Ogilvie in 1966. Woods, who was often spotted around town wearing some of Nixon's discarded suits, had toiled as the chief investigator for the Better Government Association (BGA). "Sheriff Joe" was a throw-back to the "rootin-tootin" flamboyance of John Babb in the early 1950s, but like the lamented Babb, very little of substance was accomplished during the four years of the Woods regime except a highly publicized and stormy battle with the County Board over manpower appropriations. Political overtones began to permeate decision making.
In 1969, shortly after he ordered 58 of his police across the Indiana line to assist Gary Police officers in quelling a racial disturbance, Woods asked the finance committee for $200,000 to pay for riot control before seeking the largest personnel increase up to that time ever filed by an elected official in Cook County. George Dunne, finance chairman of the Cook County Board bristled. He advised suburban municipalities to turn to the National Guard - not the Cook County Police for assistance in suppressing civil disturbances. Woods was censured for his over-zealous actions in Indiana by State's Attorney John Stamos.
Joe Woods was an officious man with a good deal of pomposity. He antagonized some of the holdovers from the Ogilvie regime. He truly enjoyed the role of Sheriff, the acclaim and notoriety of office. But after his four years were up it was time for him to move on. Like his mentor, he ran against his old nemesis George Dunne for the presidency of the Cook County Board, but was easily defeated. A Richard B. Ogilvie, Joe Woods was not.
Richard Elrod, the son of 24th Ward Democratic boss Arthur X. Elrod, narrowly defeated the qualified Under Sheriff Bernard Carey, a low-key former F.B.I. agent, in the 1970 election. As a City of Chicago corporation counsel assigned to the Police Department, Elrod was involved in a tragic mishap with a street demonstrator. It occurred while dispensing legal advice to Chicago Police officers assigned to riot duty during the 1969 "Days of Rage." Elrod attempted to tackle a youthful protester resulting in a paralyzing neck injury and life-long disability for his troubles. The sympathy and publicity surrounding this unfortunate encounter undoubtedly helped thrust Elrod over the top in a closely contested race with Republican Bernie Carey.
A new Illinois constitution was drafted in 1970, and for the first time the laws of the state were changed to allow the Cook County Sheriff to stand for re-election. Elrod, with the resources of the well-oiled Democratic machine behind him, rolled through four terms of office as Sheriff.
Reform and scandal characterized Elrod's stormy 16-year term. The new Sheriff pushed through many noteworthy changes during his first few years of office. Elrod opened a centralized police headquarters with an up-to-date crime lab and pistol range in Maywood in 1973. Prior to this time, the Cook County Sheriff's Police was headquartered in the sixth floor of the downtown county building, and the three geographically located substations in Bedford Park, Homewood, and Niles. Major changes were put into place within the Department of Corrections.
Sheriff Elrod, a product of his dad's legendary 24th Ward Democratic Organization, espoused a philosophy of honesty and integrity. To meet these ends, he instituted a policy of not appointing any person as a Special Deputy with the attending privileges unless that person was employed as a full time County employee. Unfortunately for the Democratic Sheriff, the patronage abuses associated with the issuance of deputy stars to 1,200 politically-connected Holiday Court deputies, compromised Elrod and surfaced in the press at a point in time when the "Operation Safe Bet" revelations were also beginning to hit the front pages.
Operation Safe Bet was a sweeping four-year probe carried out by the F.B.I. into existing vice conditions and organized crime in suburban Cook County. It exposed the layers of protection provided to the owners of strip clubs and massage parlors by investigators from the Cook County Police Department. An F.B.I.-operated credit card service in Palatine processed $30-million in claims for several of the after-hours nightclubs suspected of soliciting prostitution.
Federal indictments were handed down against five current and former Cook County Sheriff's Police vice officers on charges of accepting $50,000 in payoffs to protect suburban bookmakers and houses of prostitution in unincorporated areas, primarily along Rand and Mannheim Roads in northern Cook County.
Lieutenant James Keating, the former head of the Criminal Intelligence Unit (C.I.U.) and a member of the Cook County Police since 1964, and Sergeant Bruce Frasch, a 16-year veteran who headed the sensitive vice control unit from 1978 until 1983, were convicted on 18 counts of racketeering conspiracy, extortion, and income tax fraud in U.S. District Court after four weeks of damaging testimony that exposed the sordid underbelly of suburban sleaze and police graft. The most damaging testimony against Frasch and Keating was supplied by government informants and undercover agents who recorded 40 secretly taped conversations revealing to the jurors the full extent of the cesspool of corruption.
Officer Rick Urso described for the court at one point, a conversation he had with Frasch at the Maywood headquarters involving the disbursement of bribe money. "I told him its not funny. I don't want to be involved in this. Let's turn the money in." Frasch replied: "It's no big deal. It happens every day. This is a way of life." And so it was.
Corruption flourished because the 400 or so otherwise honest but complacent officers refused to bring the matter before the press because to do so would compromise their standing in the department - and possibly bring on a two-day suspension or some other unknown retribution. By and large they did nothing. The police department again lost credibility and has not gained it back to this day.
It took the jury only six hours to convict the mobbed-up Keating and Officer Frasch, but the long term consequences helped deal a fatal blow to Sheriff Elrod's bid for re-election in 1986, and paved the way for a Republican dark horse named James E. O'Grady who had served a brief term as Chicago Police Superintendent under Mayor Michael Bilandic. O'Grady resigned the top spot before he could be fired after Mayor Jane Byrne announced her intention to oust him from the superintendency as one of her first official acts upon taking office in 1979. Byrne accused O'Grady of politicizing the police.
The opportunistic O'Grady's next move was to happily accept an appointment as Undersheriff from Richard Elrod. He jumped on board and swore allegiance to the Democratic regime and the man who gave him a job and then commenced to stab him in the back. After Safebet sabotaged the Elrod regime, O'Grady conveniently jumped political parties and was swept into the Sheriff's office on a rising tide of voter dis-content, fueled by the far-reaching scandal. It was an election aberration mainly brought about by a little- known political party known as the "LaRouchies." They got on the ballot and caused Elrod and the gubernatorial candidate Adlai Stevenson to lose to Republican opponents.
The office of Sheriff and the fate of the Cook County Police was now in the hands of James "the Reformer" O'Grady and his Undersheriff, Jimmy "the Bohemian" Dvorak, a maneuvering but street-wise political cop. Dvorak was plucked from the Chicago Police Department by the cunning O'Grady to direct the 1986 campaign against Elrod. With this dynamic duo in control, the Sheriff's office again evolved into the most politicized and corrupt office in Cook County. O'Grady violated his campaign pledge to end the patronage ills by rewarding dozens of his campaign contributors and political friends with 450 sensitive law enforcement jobs they were not qualified to hold. They demeaned and undermined any chances for reform in the police department. The Merit Board became a farce and was abused at will. Ghost payrollers flourished.
Purchasing tickets to O'Grady-Dvorak fund raisers became the pre-requisite for advancement in the department and the rank-and-file knew it and again played the game. Merit tests were rigged in favor of political allies, and many of the top campaign contributors and political cronies were deputized - an ancient practice in Cook County that O'Grady pledged to end once and for all - but as endemic to politicians never kept. The public was soon to discover that O'Grady was the biggest failure of all. "The Sheriff made these accommodations for a select group to be used as administrative advisors," Dvorak explained about the patronage army. "They are people of the highest credibility." Too bad he wasn't.
Dvorak seized control of the Cook County Republican Party apparatus which was never much to begin with, and used the G.O.P. banner as his own private fund raising tool for his and O'Grady's causes. By November 1989, the pair had squeezed $356,917.00 out of the correctional officers working the Department of Corrections, the Cook County Police, and other administrative employees during his first three years in office. "Jim Dvorak is a leader among law enforcement professionals and he's now a leader among politicians," O'Grady said of his trusted henchman, after installing him as Cook County G.O.P. Party chairman and one might add - a cop turned crook.
Less than a year after uttering these famous words, Dvorak was forced to resign as Undersheriff after the government's snitch in outfit operations, William "B.J." Jahoda, revealed that the Rocco Infelise street crew paid "the Bohemian" $10,000 a month to "lay off" on suburban gambling raids that would threaten the Outfit's control over bookmaking. Dvorak, a self-styled "attack politician" was eventually indicted on charges of income tax evasion and bribery. Prosecutors showed that he helped direct a lucrative commissary contract at the Department of Corrections to the owners of a suburban car rental agency in return for free usage of eight fleet cars. Dvorak also admitted that he failed to report $100,000 in bribe proceeds to the I.R.S.
The charges that Dvorak had received $175,000 in 1988-1989 from organized crime figures were later dismissed. However, the "Bohemian" was sentenced to 41-months in prison and assessed a $50,000 fine by U.S. District Judge James Zagel and his mob ties were not in dispute.
The Dvorak embarrassment, the widespread patronage abuses, accusations of improper actions taken by Sheriff's investigators during six murder cases, and the smell of corruption emanating out of the seventh floor of the Richard J. Daley Center cost O'Grady the 1990 election, and permanently ended his budding political career as the newest Republican fair-haired boy in Cook County. A tenure of tragedy for suburban law enforcement.
After Operation Safebet had so thoroughly thrown the department into the dumper it hardly seemed possible that the office of Cook County Sheriff could sink even deeper in the mire. To prove even more unbelievable was O'Grady's posturing as the "Reformer." At election time, bone-weary Cook County residents who endured Operation Safebet, and the reciprocal spin-off cases, had to be asking themselves, "who will reform the reformer?" It was clear O'Grady was wanted out by all.
In a stunning political reversal that caught many insiders off guard, the 19th Ward Alderman of Chicago stepped forward and said "I will!" At first Michael F. Sheahan said that he would not mount a challenge to O'Grady. He praised the "Reformer" for doing a "...good job under difficult circumstances..." just before he was tabbed by the Democratic politicos as their man and threw his hat in the ring, promising as usual to clean house. The dangers of mixing politics and public safety was persistent theme emphasized by every candidate for the office of Sheriff going back nearly a century. Unfortunately the campaign rhetoric was put to the side once the new man was put in office.
Mike Sheahan, a former juvenile officer in the Chicago Police Department positioned himself as another reformer free of political entanglements but everyone in the know understands that he is Mayor Richard M. Daley's man. His campaign was expertly managed by his brother James "Skinny" Sheahan, a close ally of Daley and former State Senator Timothy F. Degnan, the Mayors right hand man and conduit to the ward organizations - many with questionable connections. Skinny Sheahan was named the Director of the Office of Special Events for the City of Chicago - a political thank you for his years of faithful service to the Daley organization.
Mike Sheahan was swept into office on the O'Grady debacle, and has enjoyed the warm support of the "Man on Five" ever since.
If the success of a Cook County Sheriff is measured solely by the absence of a major front-page scandal and nothing more, then Sheahan has earned a passing grade thus far and a second term of office. However, the ominous politicization of the department, a do- nothing police administration, dangerous overcrowding at the Department of Corrections culminating in several bloody confrontations between inmates and correctional officers, and the slow progress in identifying suburban law enforcement needs have not lent to a glittering administration.
Within the police department, there was a growing undercurrent of discontent and dissatisfaction with the Sheriff, and his appointed Chief of Police, William Burke, whose law enforcement resume includes brief stop-overs in St. Charles, Richton Park, and Tinley Park. Burke finally stepped down. The Department of Corrections still has deep problems and the deputies are well aware of the politics as usual.
Insider politics again plague the administration of the Cook County Sheriff. Though the patronage abuses may not be as flagrant and open as they once were, and the dead-wood of the O'Grady years finally purged from the payroll, politics is after all....politics. Lasting reform will never be truly achieved until the office of Cook County Sheriff is divorced from partisan politics. And that day will come only after our state lawmakers seize the initiative and make the position of Sheriff a qualified appointive one - not elective.