Tuohy: A friend, a legend

Injustice Watch co-founder Rob Warden reflects on the death of Jim Tuohy, a journalism legend who helped expose the kind of judicial corruption ultimately exposed in Greylord.

To his friends and colleagues, I among them, he was simply Tuohy—occasionally Jim, never James, which was reserved for his byline. If you called his home and his answering device picked up, you would hear his voice: “Tuohy. Here’s the beep.”

His byline—James Tuohy—appeared atop at least 1,500 articles spanning six decades at UPI, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Reader, and Chicago Lawyer, among other outlets for news and punditry.  At Chicago Lawyer, where he reported and wrote news and commentary during the 1980s, he became a veritable legend in the legal community—and icon in the journalism community—for exposing court corruption and much, much more.

Tuohy, who died last week of pneumonia and kidney failure, was both a brilliant journalist and, in the words of the eminent legal affairs journalist Maurice Possley, “a character and a half.” I can second that, having known Tuohy for 55 of his 85 years and worked with him off and on for 40 of those years—at Chicago Lawyer, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, and, finally Injustice Watch.

Until days before he died, Tuohy was working on an historically significant Injustice Watch article—I hope although I can’t promise to salvage it. But his last byline appeared on an Injustice Watch commentary posted on Dec. 2, 2015, four months before Mayor Rahm Emanuel rammed the appointment of Eddie Johnson as police superintendent through the City Council.  Tuohy warned —prophetically: “Whoever gets the superintendent job next, whether white, black or neither, will just be another puppet, someone whose strings can be cut by the mayor the next time there’s a scandal.” Four years to the day after Tuohy’s commentary was posted, Mayor Lori Lightfoot fired Johnson for what she deemed “a series of ethical lapses.”

Tuohy’s most significant contribution to law and journalism no doubt was a March 1981 Chicago Lawyer cover story headlined “Hustling: How soliciting works in local branch courts.” It began: “There is, in the activity around the judge’s bench at 1121 S. State Street, something of the atmosphere of a private club. It is not an elegant or graceful private club, not one to which most people would want to belong, but in its own neighborhood, on its own social level, it is a club that is powerful and exclusionary and where there is money.”

The story exposed how various judges routinely steered clients to certain lawyers in exchange for suspected payoffs—which would be proved at a series of federal trials beginning three years later and continuing through 1993. The trials followed a massive federal investigation known as Operation Greylord, which culminated in the felony convictions of more than a dozen judges and about three score of lawyers, Chicago cops, Cook County deputy sheriffs, and court personnel.

Tuohy and I collaborated on a book about the scandal—“Greylord: Justice, Chicago Style” (G.P. Putnam Sons, 1989)—the first chapter of which, written by Tuohy, was republished as a Chicago Tribune Magazine cover story on Jan. 15, 1989, with this memorable lead:

“Ray Sodini awoke late.

“His head hurt. His eyes ached. His tongue was dry as a blotter, and it stung from cigarettes.

“Ray Sodini had a hangover.

“He reached for the telephone. He dialed the number, his fingers twitching, It was answered at the other end.

“I was out late last night,” said Sodini. ‘Tell Cy to put on the robes and do the bum call.’

“Then Raymond C. Sodini, one of about 350 judges of the Circuit Court of Cook County, pushed his head into his pillow, and closed his eyes. Had borrowed another hour or so before he would have to get up and go to his courtroom at the Police Headquarters Building at Eleventh and State Streets in Chicago.

“As Sodini slumbered in his Near North Side apartment, a police sergeant, Cy Martin, was putting on Sodini’s black robes. Martin would handle the 8 a.m. call of vagrants and drunks who had been picked up the night before . . .”

Another lead of Tuohy’s that’s indelible in my mind appeared in the April 1984 Chicago Lawyer: “They drive a hard bargain in Lake County. They told Ronnie Starks that if he took a polygraph test and passed he could go free. He took the test. He passed. He got 11 years.”

There were many, many others that are similarly memorable, but suffice to cite just one more, which exposed sexual abuse of clients by a Chicago divorce lawyer named Richard Rinella in the Reader on Sept. 30, 1993.

Beneath a headline “Legally Screwed,” the article began:

“Here’s the situation. A big-time divorce lawyer handling a big-money divorce case is in bed with an attractive woman who is not his wife. She is, in fact, his client, the one involved in the big-money divorce case. It doesn’t take a legal scholar to see that this is a situation fraught with ethical difficulties. Right?

“Now, to compound matters, the bed the lawyer and his client are in is located in the house she still owns with her husband. What the wife and the lawyer are doing is not sleeping when, unexpectedly on this quiet weekday afternoon, the husband walks in.

“It is a particularly flagrant example of flagrante delicto. And, besides the moral concerns, it should get the lawyer in a lot of trouble, since a lawyer who gets caught with his client in such a situation probably has not strengthened her legal position in her divorce case. The lawyer no doubt has violated whatever stern rules cover a divorce lawyer who, sexually speaking, socks it to his client in her very own home.”

At this point, it seems appropriate to relate a bit of Tuohy’s background. He grew up in Barrington. His father, John Marshall Tuohy, was a justice of the Illinois Appellate Court, his uncle, William J. Tuohy, was the State’s Attorney of Cook County. After high school, Tuohy (young James, that is) joined the Marines. Upon discharge, he enrolled at the University of Illinois, but lasted there just a year.

Jim Tuohy, June 2018 photo by Vicki Quade

Jim Tuohy, June 2018. Photo by Vicki Quade

Aspiring to a career in journalism, he applied to the now-defunct Chicago City News Bureau. Because he was older than most applicants, he shaved a couple of years off his age—claiming to have been born in 1936 when in fact he had been born in 1934. He was hired and was so good that he soon landed a job at UPI, where he did equally well.

In the mid-1960s, Tuohy wanted to move to the Sun-Times, but he knew that because of his lack of academic credentials he was unlikely to pass muster with the paper’s preppy young editor, Jim Hoge. Tuohy’s solution to that little problem was to bestow upon himself a fictitious degree in journalism from Columbia University.

A few years later, when he applied for a job at WBBM-TV, where he worked for Bill Kurtis, he awarded himself a master’s degree from Columbia. And after that, in applying for a job at WMAQ-TV, he awarded himself an even more impressive credential—a PhD in anthropology from Harvard no less. Not long after landing the WMAQ job, a member of the staff told him something to the effect, “Hey, Tuohy, Jorie Lueloff [the noon news anchor] is interviewing a colleague of yours”—the chairman of the Harvard Department of Anthropology. Tuohy promptly excused himself from the newsroom to avoid encountering the colleague who wasn’t.

Tuohy’s personality was such that at Sterch’s, a bar he frequented on Lincoln Avenue, he enjoyed all the beer he could drink free of charge—or rather he was allowed to run up a ten-grand tab with no expectation that it ever would be paid—because his presence was a draw for paying customers. Tuohy also was a regular at Riccardo’s, at the foot of Rush Street, where he enjoyed no such perquisite, but did enjoy imbibing with, inter alia, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, and, when they happened to be in town, Tennessee Williams and Salvador Dali.

For all of Tuohy’s investigative reporting and delightful prose, he never won either a journalism or a legal award. But, true to form, that didn’t deter him from proclaiming on the jacket of a book he co-wrote about, of all things, Lionel Trains that he was the recipient of “the coveted Sarsfield Award.”

Sarsfield was his middle name—bestowed by his parents.

Rob Warden is co-director of Injustice Watch, former editor and publisher of Chicago Lawyer, former member of the executive staff of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, and executive director emeritus of the Center on Wrongful Convictions.