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Thomas P. Sullivan, legal ‘giant’ and Chicago U.S. attorney who started Operation Greylord, dies at 91

Sullivan played a key role in the fight against public corruption in Illinois, but his wife says he mostly “just cared about helping people.”

Thomas P. Sullivan is sworn in a Chicago’s U.S. attorney in 1977 as his 11-year-old son holds the Bible.
Thomas P. Sullivan is sworn in a Chicago’s U.S. attorney in 1977 as his 11-year-old son holds the Bible.
Sun-Times file

When U.S. Attorney Thomas P. Sullivan took the first steps to begin what would become the legendary Chicago corruption probe known as Operation Greylord, he knew its failure could mean the end of his legal career.

“He did it anyway,” friend and colleague Scott Turow told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Because it was the right thing to do for the people of the Northern District of Illinois.”

Sullivan died Tuesday at the age of 91. His death was announced by the law firm Jenner & Block, where Sullivan spent his entire career, save for the four years he served as Chicago’s top federal prosecutor during the Carter administration.

Anne Landau, his wife of 25 years, said Sullivan “didn’t waver in his convictions, whether it was private or public.” His colleagues called him a legal “giant.” And when Mayor Harold Washington tapped Sullivan to dig into a bribery scandal in 1986, a close associate told the Sun-Times, “Tom won’t let himself be used by anyone.”

Thomas P. Sullivan
Sun-Times file

Sullivan in 1954 became the 30th lawyer hired by Johnson, Thompson, Raymond & Mayer, which would later become Jenner & Block. More than two decades later, he would serve as U.S. attorney from 1977 until 1981, at the start of what would be one of the most storied investigations in Chicago history.

The 1980s Greylord sting targeting Cook County judges followed the acquittal of mob hit man Harry Aleman. Key FBI mole Terrence Hake later wrote that Cook County State’s Attorney Bernard Carey took his concerns about the case to Sullivan, who then brought the idea of an Abscam-style sting in Chicago to FBI Director William Webster.

That’s according to Hake’s book, “Operation Greylord: The True Story of an Untrained Undercover Agent and America’s Biggest Corruption Bust,” written with Wayne Klatt. The FBI says the sting led to the indictment of 92 officials, including 17 judges and 48 lawyers, and it’s recently been discussed as the basis of a possible movie titled “Crook County.”

Turow, now a retired partner at the Dentons law firm, wrote in an email that Illinois Supreme Court precedent “basically threatened disbarment” to anyone who tried to investigate the courts “by any means that didn’t involve telling a judge out loud he was under investigation.” But Sullivan pushed forward anyway.

Turow said Sullivan taught him “a huge amount,” including when Turow was the junior prosecutor against then-Illinois Attorney General William J. Scott. Turow recalled Sullivan’s “relentless attack on the facts” and that, “there was no such thing as good enough.”

“Sitting beside him during the investigation, trial and appeal, listening to him sometimes late into the night, I learned from Tom what it meant to be a great lawyer,” Turow wrote. “Not that I became one; but I came to understand what made him one.”

Despite his key role in the fight against public corruption in Illinois, Landau said Sullivan mostly “just cared about helping people.” She pointed out that Sullivan helped start Jenner & Block’s pro bono program. Then-Gov. George Ryan also chose Sullivan to co-chair a commission on capital punishment.

Ryan would go on to clear death row, and Gov. Pat Quinn would later abolish the death penalty in the state.

Amid his work on the commission, Landau said Sullivan came downstairs one day and said, “I want to change the way custodial interviews are done in police stations. … I’m going to make sure they record custodial interrogations.” She said he worked with young associates and paralegals and cold-called police all over the country as part of the effort.

“He was a great guy,” Landau said. “His family and I will miss him forever.”

Sullivan is also survived by children Tim, Maggie, Liza and Mimi, as well as his grandchildren.