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He was somebody we could trust

Patrick Fitzgerald explains indictment against Gov. George Ryan Dec. 17 2003.  |  Anne Ryan~AP

Patrick Fitzgerald explains the indictment against Gov. George Ryan on Dec. 17, 2003. | Anne Ryan~AP

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Updated: July 3, 2012 9:12AM

Patrick Fitzgerald is the closest I’ve seen to a white knight in this sometimes evil kingdom the U.S. Justice Department refers to as the Northern District of Illinois.

That’s why many of us had long dreaded Wednesday’s announcement that Fitzgerald would be stepping down as U.S. Attorney after nearly 11 years in the post.

Everyone knew Fitzgerald couldn’t go on forever in the job. He’d said so himself on many occasions. And it’s not that he can’t be replaced. Anyone can be replaced.

But at the risk of adding to the considerable mythmaking that has surrounded Fitzgerald’s tenure, I doubt anyone ever did a better job of conveying to the public the message that is so important in his job — that he was somebody we could trust.

From the very start when he was intentionally brought in as an outsider by then-Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (no relation), Patrick Fitzgerald conducted himself as a true untouchable.

While most evaluations of Fitzgerald’s tenure will focus on the scalps in his collection — Ryan, Blagojevich, Burge, Vrdolyak, Cellini and the Family Secrets mobsters for starters — I’m just as impressed with the way he went about his job.

It’s in that respect that I believe he provided the model for his successors.

Most important, Fitzgerald never showed any political bias in the use of his discretion other than being completely opposed to crooked politicians — whether they be Democrat or Republican.

While the office has many responsibilities, the litmus test in Chicago has long been what the U.S. attorney does in regard to public corruption — for the simple reason we have nobody else to protect us from the political class.

A large part of what gave Fitzgerald credibility on public corruption matters is that he always made it clear he had no interest in using his celebrity or the immense power at his disposal as Chicago’s most important crime fighter to build a future for himself in politics. When a federal prosecutor has political ambitions, the work of the office becomes suspect.

In addition, Fitzgerald never gave any indication he saw the position as a steppingstone to a lucrative partnership with a big law firm. Even now as he weighs his options, it’s hard to imagine him doing corporate defense work.

Fitzgerald didn’t even act like he got much ego gratification from his own high profile.

Something else you might not have noticed, though it’s more apparent in my line of work, Fitzgerald never leaked information about investigations, not once that I saw, and you might say I am a trained observer of such matters.

I guess that gives away the fact I’m commenting on this from a certain distance. I base my comments entirely from watching him in action.

Truth is we have long treated our U.S. attorneys in Chicago as omniscient, godlike creatures, bestowing all manner of importance to them, largely because we can’t look behind the curtain to see who is really pulling the levers in the office.

Fitzgerald would be the first to tell you that much of the success that has been attributed to him was actually the result of the hard work of his assistants and investigators from the FBI and IRS.

With Fitzgerald stepping down, the focus will shift to replacing him, in particular whether it is necessary to again reach outside Illinois as Peter Fitzgerald did when he recruited his namesake from New York.

While the wisdom of that selection has been proven out, I still argue that going outside is unnecessary. The key facts about Fitzgerald are that he was an aggressive, highly principled career prosecutor, not that he’d never voted in an Illinois election.

As he goes forward, I will be greatly disappointed if Fitzgerald chooses to enter politics, although if he gives it a rest for five years, I might reconsider.

It would be even more disappointing if he left Chicago. Someone of his proven integrity and credibility could be an important civic asset for decades to come.

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