Patrick Fitzgerald, the US attorney who became a household name after earning convictions for two sitting Illinois governors and other high-profile figures, announced Thursday that he is stepping down.
Clocking 11 years on the job, Mr. Fitzgerald is the longest-serving US attorney in Chicago history. His aggressive pursuit of corruption routinely earned him comparisons to Eliot Ness, the famed Prohibition agent in the Al Capone era.
“He went after City Hall and really rooted out a lot of corrupt people who were major political players,” says Evan McKenzie, an attorney and associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “He was combating corruption, and anyone who knows this state knows corruption is an enormous problem.”
In a statement released Wednesday, US Attorney General Eric Holder described Fitzgerald “as a prosecutor’s prosecutor” and said he served “with the utmost integrity and a steadfast commitment to the cause of justice.”
Fitzgerald did not reveal why he was exiting office, nor did he offer clues as to the next steps in his professional life, besides saying he wants to remain in Chicago. Former US prosecutors often have four choices when they leave their positions, Professor McKenzie says: politicians, white-collar defense attorneys, civil litigators, and judges.
At a press conference Thursday morning, Fitzgerald ruled out at least two of the four.
“I’m not wired to campaign for anything or run for elective office, period,” he said. Later, when asked if he would go into private practice to defend the same type of people he once prosecuted, he quipped: “Can you see me as a defense attorney?”
Fitzgerald arrived in Chicago from New York City, where he made his name in successful prosecutions involving the 1998 terrorist bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. On Thursday he said of that time, “Most people didn’t [know] who Al Qaeda was,” but those convictions started the process of dismantling the terrorist groups.
“Obviously, there’s still a dangerous threat out there, but it’s remarkable we avoided anything close to the scale of the 9/11 attack in the 10 years since,” he said.
Once in Chicago, Fitzgerald pursued the successful convictions of two successive Illinois governors: George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich. Mr. Ryan was charged with racketeering and fraud that went back to his days as secretary of State. Mr. Blagojevich was accused of trying to sell Barack Obama’s seat in the US Senate after he won the presidential election.
Each of the high-profile corruption trials was handled with particular tenacity. For example, Blagojevich was tried a second time after the first trial resulted in a hung jury.
When Fitzgerald had announced the charges against Blagojevich, he told reporters that Blagojevich’s actions were so egregious, they would make none other than Abraham Lincoln “roll over his grave.” Those words were later used by Blagojevich’s defense team as evidence that Fitzgerald operated with a special vendetta against the governor.
On Thursday, Fitzgerald admitted regrets over the inflamed comments and said that they “seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Besides the two governors, Fitzgerald won convictions for a long list of Chicago organized-crime leaders, city workers and contractors, local officials, and top aides to former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, with whom he had a chilly relationship.
Because of Fitzgerald’s success rate in Chicago, he was tapped in 2005 as special prosecutor in cases involving I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s adviser, who became the highest-ranking White House official since the Iran-contra case to receive a conviction.