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Patrick Fitzgerald quits U.S. attorney post after nearly 11 years

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 3, 2012 8:50AM

In the Dirksen Federal Courthouse’s largest courtroom Wednesday morning, some 160 federal prosecutors and staffers filed in for a standing-room only announcement.

The person speaking: U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the man who hired about 130 of them.

Over the last 10-plus years, he led them through some of the highest profile prosecutions the office — and state — had seen.

Now, Fitzgerald announced he was leaving.

Fitzgerald choked up at one point as he bid adieu to his staff.

In return, the entirety of the room — from the grizzled chaps who had been in the office for decades to the young, bright new hires — stood up and gave him an emotional and extended standing ovation.

“It lasted quite a long time. I think he really took it to heart,” said an assistant U.S. attorney who asked not to be named.

People in the room immediately recognized that Fitzgerald’s announcement was an end to a storied, incredible era in Chicago, one that is unlikely to be seen again anytime soon.

Fitzgerald was known as the fearless, indefatigable crime-fighter that the state’s power brokers didn’t want. He gave him exactly what they feared.

Under Fitzgerald’s tenure, the state saw the conviction of back-to-back governors — Republican George Ryan and Democrat Rod Blagojevich — as well as the toppling of the power structures beneath them.

The office convicted media baron Conrad Black and former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge. It brought on the legendary “Family Secrets” mob investigation and exposed the criminal schemes of behind-the-scenes power brokers like Stuart Levine, Tony Rezko, Springfield millionaire William Cellini and former Chicago Ald. Ed Vrdolyak.

Fitzgerald could be seen walking in and out of the courthouse on weekends. Prosecutors said it wasn’t uncommon to receive an email from him at 2 a.m.

“That was before Blackberries and you had to send an email from the office,” said former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins.

Fitzgerald was known over time to be an equal opportunity indicter, charging after the crooked without regard to power status or political affiliation.

Prosecutors say they knew he had their backs and he had his own clout in Washington D.C. if there was second-guessing of a pending prosecution.

Fitzgerald, 51, was twice appointed as a special prosecutor by the U.S. Department of Justice. He made enemies by pushing the prosecution of Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. (Cheney later denounced the prosecution and his daughter called it a “tremendous miscarriage of justice.”)

In January, Fitzgerald brought a case against a former CIA officer for allegedly leaking to reporters a covert official’s identity and other information, some of which was found in the materials of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.

Calling his role as the most powerful prosecutor in the state “one of the greatest opportunities that one could ever hope for,” Fitzgerald bowed out of his post with no future job lined up. His last day will be June 30.

“This was a great office when I arrived, and I have no doubt that it will continue to be a great office,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. A news conference is planned for Thursday morning.

Some of those close to him said they didn’t know of the decision until recently.

That included FBI Special Agent in Charge Rob Grant, who got a call early Wednesday.

“Are you sitting down?” Fitzgerald asked him.

Several federal prosecutors described Fitzgerald’s farewell but asked not to be named because they still work in the office. “I don’t think there’s anybody here who doesn’t think highly of him, both as a prosecutor and as a person,” said one of the prosecutors.

Fitzgerald will take a few months off this summer to spend time with his two sons and wife and will try to make a decision about his future by Labor Day.

Fitzgerald was appointed to the post — as an outsider — in Sept. 2001 with the nod of then-U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (no relation). Brooklyn native Patrick Fitzgerald, the son of a doorman, was known to be an expert in terrorism, having brought the first indictment against Osama bin Laden. He prosecuted organized crime figures John and Joe Gambino in the Eastern District of New York. His partner was James Comey, who would later rise to the post of deputy attorney general and proclaim Fitzgerald “Eliot Ness with a Harvard law degree and a sense of humor.”

But even his biggest critics agreed on Wednesday that Fitzgerald carved out his own legacy in Chicago — one that years from now may likely have people harking back to the “Patrick Fitzgerald days.”

As the longest serving U.S. Attorney in Chicago history, he already did the improbable by keeping his position across two presidential administrations spanning two parties.

With the next presidential election looming this fall, Fitzgerald wanted to go out on his own terms, those close to him say.

As top prosecutor for the Northern District of Illinois, Fitzgerald has an annual salary of $155,000 a year — a meager amount when compared to what he would easily earn in the private sector.

Those close to him though say that’s not what he’s about.

“He’s not a wealthy man by any stretch of the imagination,” said Grant. “He’s never been motivated by money or politics.”

A prosecutor for nearly 24 years, Fitzgerald has always aspired to public service.

Still, while the public believed he was on the short list to replace FBI Director Robert Mueller last year, Fitzgerald wasn’t even called, said Grant.

“Is there a connection that he wasn’t considered for the FBI job and the cages he’s rattled politically? Maybe,” Grant said. “It’s possible he paid a price for doing the right thing.”

Mueller’s term was eventually extended.

Perhaps Fitzgerald’s most famous utterance during his tenure in Chicago came on the same day of Rod Blagojevich’s stunning Dec. 9, 2008, arrest.

“Gov. Blagojevich has been arrested in the middle of what we can only describe as a political corruption crime spree,” Fitzgerald said in a nationally televised news conference. “The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave.”

Fitzgerald weathered many a storm in Chicago, including criticism for those remarks. Cook County Commissioner William Beavers blasted Fitzgerald recently, calling the charges against him oppressive and blaming the top prosecutor for the suicides of three men who were under criminal investigation. Others have criticized using cooperators with arguably worse sins to testify in cases.

Fitzgerald suffered some embarrassments. The man who one former female colleague referred to as “prosecutie,” was named one of the “Sexiest Men Alive” by People Magazine in 2005.

A mortified Fitzgerald then said: “I’ve played a lot of practical jokes on people for a lot of years and they all got even at once.”

When a jury could not reach a verdict on 23 of 24 counts against Blagojevich in his first trial in 2010, the Wall Street Journal called on Fitzgerald to be fired.

“If Mr. Fitzgerald doesn’t resign of his own accord,” the Journal wrote, “the Justice Department should remove him.”

Fitzgerald was known to have a near-photographic memory. He could recite phone numbers of al-Qaeda cooperatives 15 years after closing a case, according to Grant.

One of his chief critics during his tenure here, Thomas Anthony Durkin, said he was taken aback when he first was in court with Fitzgerald on a terror funding investigation. Fitzgerald, off the top of his head, recited the chain-of-command of al-Qaeda figures.

“It was incredible,” Durkin said. “He did it with no notes.”

Over time, Fitzgerald was able to achieve the impossible in a city filled with cynics. His integrity went unquestioned.

“The office has had a storied history of public corruption prosecutions unparalleled in the country,” said former federal prosecutor Ron Safer. “He accelerated the pace at which even this office investigated and convicted public corruption at the highest levels… That is an impressive legacy.”

Safer said he would always remember how Fitzgerald showered praise on former U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar when he announced Ryan’s indictment.

“Who does that? No one does that,” Safer said. “They pound their chest and say ‘me.’ ”

Reached Wednesday, the man who appointed Patrick Fitzgerald so many years ago said he spoke with him on the morning he would announce his departure.

“He was a transcendent U.S. attorney. It’s the end of an era,” Peter Fitzgerald said. “I think this era will not be forgotten for a long time. I think he did a magnificent job. And I think he exceeded the high expectations that were set for him.”

Contributing: Lynn Sweet

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