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Time for a change? Job of U.S. Attorney in Chicago has long been held by white men

Lori Lightfoot

Lori Lightfoot

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Updated: December 19, 2012 1:42PM

The U.S. Attorney in Chicago is arguably one of the most — if not the most — powerful jobs in town.

And it has long been held by the same kind of person. Specifically, a white male.

In one of the most diverse cities in the country, there’s part of the legal community that wonders: is it time for diversity in that job — which has been open since Patrick Fitzgerald stepped down?

A committee set up by Illinois’ two U.S. senators has now whittled the candidates for the post down to four people, according to sources with knowledge of those notified they are finalists.

The only minority on that list is Lori Lightfoot, who is female and African American. The other three contenders, however, are well regarded among their peers and should not be dismissed because they aren’t minorities, observers say.

That includes Zach Fardon, Jonathan Bunge and Gil Soffer — all former federal prosecutors.

Previously thought to be a shoo-in was U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall, who has traveled the world educating other jurisdictions on how to institute laws and prosecutorial practices against sex trafficking and child exploitation. However, Kendall’s name was not among the final four, according to sources.

On Nov. 7, Kendall’s criminal caseload was returned to her, according to the U.S. Clerk of Court — a sign she was no longer in the running. The caseload had been handed out to other judges because it was thought to be a conflict for her to be in consideration for the position while she awaited the decision.

Thomas Anthony Durkin, a former federal prosecutor and now a prominent defense attorney in Chicago, said: “It is time for both” a minority and a woman to take the helm.

“It should have happened years ago. ... She would be terrific and a good shot in the arm for that place,” Durkin said of Lightfoot.

Behind the scenes, however, attorneys point to a 2000 U.S. 7th Circuit decision, which called Lightfoot to task in the bungling of an extradition case, resulting in a reprimand.

The conduct happened when Lightfoot worked as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Chicago office.

Some say it could be a dealbreaker, while others dismiss it.

The panel called Lightfoot’s actions “professional misconduct” but then referred to it as an “isolated lapse.”

“For a government lawyer to file with a court a misleading statement the effect of which is to moot a petition for habeas corpus is professional misconduct,” the opinion stated.

“Because the motion was (and had to be) filed hurriedly, and Lightfoot had received misleading advice from her superiors concerning a novel situation that she had never before confronted, and because her record as a lawyer is otherwise unblemished, as attested by the glowing testimonials that we have received concerning her character and her professional competence and performance, we do not think a severe sanction, such as suspension or disbarment from the bar of this court, or a recommendation to Illinois’s Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Committee for disciplinary action, is warranted. We are disposed instead to regard the episode as an isolated lapse deserving only of a reprimand.”

Ron Safer, former prosecutor and now managing partner at Schiff Hardin LLP said it would be a “positive step” for the U.S. Attorney to have diversity at the top.

“It is hard to imagine that we have not had a woman or minority U.S. Attorney or even a First Assistant,” Safer said. “I believe it is critically important to have a diverse group of prosecutors. The first reason is talent. Diverse teams are superior teams. The prosecutor’s office must have credibility. When the population of the USAO reflects the population of the community it serves, its credibility is enhanced.”

Meanwhile, Bunge, a former deputy chief of the U.S. attorney’s general crimes section in Chicago, who now works with the Kirkland & Ellis law firm. Bunge has contributed more than $80,000 to Democratic political campaigns, including $15,000 to President Obama’s victory fund in March of this year and $10,000 to the Democratic National Committee, according to financial disclosures.

He also donated $1,000 to Dick Durbin in 2002 and 2005 and $2,000 in 2006 and a $2,000 contribution to Rahm Emanuel in 2004. He also donated more than $2,000 to Al Franken.

Fardon, who prosecuted George Ryan in Chicago and was First Assistant U.S. Attorney in Nashville before going into private practice with Latham and Watkins in Chicago. Fardon also represented a key flipper in the Rod Blagojevich investigation – John Wyma. Wyma was critical in securing wiretaps for federal authorities.

Lightfoot is one of the city’s leading African-American attorneys and was once the chief administrator at the Chicago Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards. Lightfoot works with the Mayer Brown law firm.

Soffer, who briefly worked in Washington, D.C., under former Deputy Attorney General Mark Filip, who is co-chair of the selection committee, has served as a commissioner on the Illinois Executive Ethics Commission. The Harvard Law graduate is National Co-Head of White Collar Defense, Internal Investigations and Compliance Practice at Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP.

A Durbin spokeswoman would not comment on the status of the search except to say that she expected news relatively soon.

Safer said he has worked with all four candidates and has affection “and tremendous respect for each of them … I would be proud to have any of these people as the U.S. Attorney.”

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