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After 11 years as U.S. attorney in Chicago, Fitzgerald steps aside

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Updated: August 1, 2012 6:09AM

Even on the eve of his departure, Patrick Fitzgerald wasn’t ready to reflect.

Just another day at the office, he claimed on Thursday.

Those around the longest-tenured U.S. attorney in Chicago history did it for him.

They called it an end of an era.

The relentless U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois ended his 11-year run as Chicago’s top federal prosecutor Friday, retiring from an office that brought countless criminals to justice.

“I think his legacy will be that he raised the bar of what it means to be a U.S. Attorney in Chicago. It’s a great office with a great history. Pat came from outside and over 10 years built upon that history to leave the office better than he found it,” said Zachary Fardon, who prosecuted former Gov. George Ryan under Fitzgerald and now is a defense lawyer.

“He did that through hard work, but most important was his purity of intentions, the earnestness of his convictions, and his kindness of heart, all of which motivated everyone around him to be better. That’s hard to act to follow.”

The end of Fitzgerald’s run was a sprint to the finish.

On Thursday, his office announced a significant public corruption investigation against two former elected officials — Joseph Mario Moreno and Ambrosio Medrano.

Last week, the FBI arrested Raghuveer Nayak, a political fund-raiser who was a key figure in the Rod Blagojevich corruption case as well as a man close to U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.

On Thursday, at his last press conference as U.S. attorney, Fitzgerald acknowledged he would soon reflect on his time at the helm. But even on the eve of his last day, he wasn’t ready yet.

“What I could simply say is today’s just another day in the office,” Fitzgerald said Thursday. “This is not the last corruption case that we’ve brought. You’ll see people keep working away. And so I think today’s no different from last week and no different than next week. I’m treating this like any other day. Tomorrow’s my last day. I’ll be reflecting privately then.”

Fitzgerald, 51, announced his plan to leave his $155,000-a-year post on May 23. He 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.

U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk are working together on finding his replacement. Until then, Fitzgerald’s longtime right-hand man, First Assistant Gary Shapiro, will lead the office.

Sources say that the intensity within the office has been ramped up in recent months in an attempt to close out some cases before his departure — or at least soon after.

That would be par for the course for Fitzgerald who, since 2001, was known for bringing high-profile cases in Chicago.

Under Fitzgerald’s tenure, the state saw the dismantling of the power structures beneath two governors and then the convictions of the governors themselves — Ryan, a Republican, and Blagojevich, a Democrat.

It also saw the convictions of media baron Conrad Black and notorious former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge.

Under Fitzgerald’s direction, the office brought on the legendary Family Secrets mob investigation that finally solved 18 mob murders. And his office exposed the criminal schemes of behind-the-scenes powerbrokers like Stuart Levine, Tony Rezko, Springfield millionaire William Cellini and former Chicago Ald. Ed Vrdolyak.

“Pat should be given credit for maintaining the more than 40-year tradition of keeping politics out of office hiring and office decision-making,” said former federal prosecutor and Chicago defense lawyer Thomas K. McQueen, who represents Nayak,

Nayak was charged Thursday with health care fraud but he is best known as the figure who allegedly offered Blagojevich’s camp millions of dollars in campaign money in exchange for the appointment of Jesse Jackson Jr. to the U.S. Senate.

Defense lawyer Michael J. Petro said what’s been amazing about Fitzgerald’s career was his ability to attack “sacred cows” of the law.

“He’s the most significant crime fighter in the United States,” Petro said. “I basically think there were a lot of sacred cows in the law and there were a lot of assumptions in the law and Patrick Fitzgerald challenged them and he won.”

Many of those fights were not popular ones. As a special prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice, Fitzgerald pushed the reporter-source privilege issue to the point that a judge put then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller in jail for not revealing her source.

Then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was later charged and convicted of lying in the investigation. That move drew the ire of many conservatives, however and those close to Fitzgerald attributed a scathing editorial from the Wall Street Journal asking Fitzgerald to step down as long knives from the Libby case.

Under Fitzgerald, the office used the Honest Services law to charge public corruption cases to the point that the U.S. Supreme Court better defined the statute.

Prosecutor Lawrence Beaumont, now a defense attorney, said when he was in the office, Fitzgerald demanded that every one of his prosecutors be “totally dedicated to doing what is right.” Fitzgerald did that, Beaumont said, “by demonstrating that is what he was devoted to doing.”

Jeff Cramer, who worked with Fitzgerald both in New York and in Chicago before leaving the office to head up the Chicago office of the Kroll investigative firm, said Fitzgerald was known for leading a non-partisan office, making decisions without politics playing a role.

“The office pursued appropriate prosecutions without regard to politics, animosity, or bias,” Cramer said. “For 11 years, Pat led an ethical and successful U.S. Attorney’s Office. He leaves with the respect of everyone who worked under him.”

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