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Tenacious Prosecutor Leaves Chicago A Little Cleaner

U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald speaks to reporters during a news conference Thursday in Chicago. Fitzgerald announced he would step down.
Brian Kersey
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U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald speaks to reporters during a news conference Thursday in Chicago. Fitzgerald announced he would step down.

Patrick Fitzgerald, the federal prosecutor who went after the Gambino crime family, al-Qaida and even the White House in court — not to mention several Illinois politicians — is leaving his job as U.S. attorney in Chicago.

The career prosecutor, known as "Eliot Ness with a Harvard degree," will leave a legacy as a tenacious corruption buster, though some criticize his style as overzealous.

Even though they are presidential appointees, U.S. attorneys are supposed to be as apolitical as possible. Some say Fitzgerald took the political independence of the U.S. attorneys office in Chicago to a whole new level.

"I don't think there's any assistant who's ever worked under Pat that ever questioned whether or not his decisions were ever based on politics, because they never were," says former assistant U.S. attorney Jeff Kramer, who worked under Fitzgerald. "You knew when Pat made a decision, it was based on the law and what his office dictated."

Fitzgerald came to Chicago in September 2001 as the ultimate outsider. In New York, he'd been prosecuting terrorism and organized crime cases. The hope at the time was for a U.S. attorney with no Illinois political ties who would be willing to go after corruption in both parties.

Andy Shaw, president of the watchdog Better Government Association, says Fitzgerald fit the bill.

"And the best example of that is he put two governors in jail, one from each party," he says.

Former Republican Gov. George Ryan is serving six and a half years. Former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich is serving 14 years — both for corruption.

But the list of Fitzgerald's convictions doesn't stop there. Media mogul Conrad Black, several mob bosses and a former police commander who abused and tortured suspects all went to prison on Fitzgerald's watch.

So, too, did the chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, whom Fitzgerald snared as a special prosecutor investigating the leak that outed CIA operative Valerie Plame. But as he discussed his decision this week to step down, Fitzgerald said he doesn't take a lot of joy in those victories.

"You did a fair trial, you won, and there's an empty feeling in your stomach when you realize that someone else is going off to prison. That doesn't change," he said. "Imprisonment is just not a good thing. It's a necessary evil at times, and I use those words meaning both words."

Fitzgerald says criminals must be locked up but that anyone who thinks prison is a productive use of anyone's time is deluding themselves.

Fitzgerald says he does have regrets. Among them are the harsh words he used when announcing the arrest of then-Gov. Blagojevich in December 2008. Fitzgerald called Blagojevich's actions "a political corruption crime spree" that "would make Lincoln roll over in his grave."

"It seemed like a good idea at the time, which tells you that ... in all seriousness, I probably could have had a colder shower, a little more sleep and some decaf," he says.

Do those words provide any solace now to the brother of the former governor? Not so much.

Robert Blagojevich was indicted along with his more infamous brother as the head of the governor's campaign fund. He says those words polluted the jury pool and that his presumption of innocence was lost.

Furthermore, Robert Blagojevich sharply criticizes the tactics Fitzgerald used in trying to get him to testify against his brother, and he's glad to see Fitzgerald go.

"I think he overreached in indicting me and using me as a pawn to get to my brother," he says, "and so I think it's a good day for civil liberties, and it's long overdue, in my opinion."

Robert Blagojevich spent almost $1 million to defend himself, only to have Fitzgerald eventually drop the charges. Others have criticized Fitzgerald for being overzealous in how broadly he applies the law. Fitzgerald dismisses such complaints.

As for what's next for the star U.S. attorney, Fitzgerald says he really has no idea yet, but the one thing he rules out is a run for office.

"I'm not wired to campaign for anything or run for elective office. Period," he says.

Fitzgerald leaves the U.S. attorneys office on June 30.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
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