Fitzgerald stepping down as US attorney in Chicago…
By DON BABWIN and TAMMY WEBBER
In a city and state known for tenacious corruption, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald became known as a man who was just as tenacious in going after politicians of every stripe.
During more than a decade in Chicago, Fitzgerald put behind bars a former Republican governor and then his Democratic successor. He traveled to Washington to win convictions of a top aide to the vice president of the United States, then returned to target an international media mogul and aides to one of the nation’s most powerful mayors.
On Wednesday, two months after former Gov. Rod Blagojevich walked into prison following Fitzgerald’s insistence he be tried a second time for trying to sell a Senate appointment, Fitzgerald announced he is stepping down after 24 years as a prosecutor.
Fitzgerald gave no reason for his decision to leave the providentially appointed post he’s held since Sept. 1, 2001. During that time he’s overseen prosecutions of Blagojevich and former Gov. George Ryan, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s top aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and media mogul Conrad Black. He took on public corruption, international terrorism, corporate fraud and organized crime.
“Eleven years is a very long time in a very high-pressure job,” said Peter Fitzgerald, a former U.S. senator, no relation, who recruited Patrick Fitzgerald to the post and spoke to him Wednesday morning about his decision. “I think it’s really hard … to divide responsibilities between family and job. I think he just felt it was time and also thought the office would benefit from new blood.”
Fitzgerald, who is married to a schoolteacher and has two young children, will hold a Thursday news conference in Chicago but said in his statement that he wants take the summer off before considering other job possibilities.
“When I was selected for this position in 2001, I said that it was one of the greatest privileges that I could ever hope for,” he said in the statement. “I believe that even more now after having the privilege of working alongside hundreds of dedicated prosecutors and agents.”
Fitzgerald has been mentioned as a possible successor to FBI Director Robert Mueller. When asked about elected public office, he has said he would never consider it.
In fact, after being appointed by a Republican President George W. Bush and keeping his job under Democratic President Barack Obama, the intensely private prosecutor has never publicly made his politics known.
“He was one of the most non-political U.S. attorney’s we’ve ever had … and in a town like this where everything is political, it is incredible to have a U.S. attorney like that,” said former state appellate Judge David Erickson.
Job prospects or no, the timing of Fitzgerald’s announcement makes sense, coming just after his office saw through Blagojevich’s imprisonment and the last of the big cases stemming from the three-year-old investigation of the former governor.
It was that case that tested Fitzgerald like no other in Chicago.
From the day of Blagojevich’s 2008 arrest, when Fitzgerald famously characterized the former governor’s actions as a “political corruption crime spree” that would “make Lincoln roll over in his grave,” he has been scrutinized for the case.
“I worked under three U.S. attorneys and none of them ever would have uttered such comments, and if any assistant did, he or she would have been fired immediately,” said Phil Turner, who worked in the northern Illinois office before Fitzgerald’s tenure began.
Criticism mounted when the jury in Blagojevich’s first trial deadlocked on the vast majority of charges, including the most damaging allegation that he tried to sell Obama’s vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder.
The Washington Post published a scathing editorial saying Fitzgerald had his shot at the former governor, lost and “should stand down before crossing another fine line _ the one that separates prosecution from persecution.” The Wall Street Journal wrote, “If Mr. Fitzgerald doesn’t resign of his own accord, the Justice Department should remove him.”
Undaunted, Fitzgerald pressed on, tried Blagojevich again and ultimately secured a conviction that resulted in a 14-year prison term for the ex-governor.
While critics insist Fitzgerald crosses lines, attorneys in his office are intensely loyal.
“He’s just a guy who does the right thing,” said Joel Levin, who left the office after he helped prosecute Ryan. “He is a person of incredible integrity.”
Fitzgerald also may be the country’s best-known and, to those he targeted, most-feared federal prosecutor. In addition to the ex-governors, his office won convictions against aging mobsters, city workers, trucking executives and top figures in former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s administration.
Nationally, he was tapped to be the special prosecutor who investigated the disclosure of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame and eventually won the conviction against Libby, though Bush later commuted his sentence.
In that case, Fitzgerald tried to force former New York Times reporter Judith Miller to testify before a grand jury, with Miller sitting in jail for three months for refusing to do so. She ultimately relented, saying Libby had given her permission to publish Plame’s name.
It was his reputation for that kind of determination that got him the job in the first place.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of a Manhattan doorman, Fitzgerald spent years advancing his career one criminal case at a time. From the East Coast to Chicago, he earned a reputation as a tough anti-corruption prosecutor who worked, as one observer put it, “28 hours a day.”
As an assistant U.S. attorney in New York he successfully prosecuted major terrorism cases, including against those responsible for the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa and Omar Abdel-Rahman, the so-called “blind sheik,” convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and conspiring to blow up bridges and buildings around New York city.
In 1993, he helped jail a Gambino crime family capo and three other mobsters for murder, racketeering, narcotics trafficking and other crimes. And he supervised the 1996 trial of three men who plotted to blow up 12 airliners.
“From his early consequential years in New York City confronting the terrorist threat to his strong leadership of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois, Pat has rightly earned a reputation over these last 24 years as a prosecutor’s prosecutor,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a Wednesday statement.
Fitzgerald was among 10 or more people with strong credentials in law enforcement whose names were mentioned a year ago as possible nominees to succeed Mueller as his 10-year term leading the FBI neared an end. President Barack Obama decided to stick with Mueller, keeping him in place for another two years until September 2013.
During an appearance last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mueller said he has had discussions with Obama about potential successors, but “not very recently.”
“We are preparing for 2013 when we would expect a new individual to take the helm,” Mueller said.
If Fitzgerald were to accept a nomination, he could potentially run into opposition on Capitol Hill from Republicans, some of whom view his prosecution of Libby case as an illustration of prosecutorial overreach.
“He’s done and incredible job and … most of us in this profession think the world’s wide open for him,” said Anton Valukas, who headed the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago from 1985-1990. “All the big firms in the country will want him to come to the private side and I would be surprised if he is not considered for a high political post.”
AP writers Jason Keyser in Chicago and Pete Yost in Washington contributed to this report.