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U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald: I won’t ever run for elective office

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

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

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Updated: July 3, 2012 9:34AM

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald says he’s not sure what he’ll do after he leaves his post as the top federal prosecutor in Chicago June 30.

But he will not run for public office: “I am not wired to campaign for anything or run for elective office, period,” he said at a news conference at the Dirksen Federal Building.

And following the lucrative path some of his predecessors have taken defending white-collar criminals after he leaves the $155,000-a-year job is unlikely:

“Can you imagine me as a defense attorney?” he asked. “I respect what defense attorneys do. I won’t do anything I don’t feel comfortable with because that’s not me.”

Chicago’s top law firms may launch a bidding war for Fitzgerald or the Obama administration may offer him some top law enforcement or Justice Department post.

“Whenever a phone rings, if the ID says ‘public service’ calling, I answer the phone,” he said. “I have not had discussions with the administration about any post. I know there’s been reports of a short list. I’ve never seen a short list, and I’ve no reason to believe I’m on it.”

In the 11 years since he came here from New York as an outsider, overseeing the prosecutions of two governors, several influence peddlers and even taking a field trip to Washington, D.C. as a special prosecutor to go after Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Fitzgerald got married, became a father of two, and his priorities changed.

After serving longer than any other U.S. Attorney in this district, he decided it was time.

“Am I rushing out in the 11th year of my senior term?” he quipped. “I’m 51. I know I’m not going to be here till I’m 65. Just because you think you’ve made the changes [in the office] that make it great doesn’t mean there won’t be someone who comes in with a fresh set of eyes and decide to do things differently. I think it’s healthy at a certain point for there to be change at the top.”

So he’ll take some time off this summer and think about what’s next. While he likes his hometown of New York, he now hopes to stay in Chicago.

Asked if he had regrets about cases he prosecuted or didn’t he said he did but tried to avoid specifying them.

He said he has been frustrated with the number of law-abiding people who don’t come forward to tell authorities about corruption.

Asked if he regrets his most famous, and most-criticized, utterance during his tenure in Chicago — when he declared after Blagojevich’s Dec. 9, 2009, arrest that the then-governor’s “conduct would make Lincoln rol. over in his grave” — Fitzgerald said, to laughter: “It seemed like a good idea at the time. In all seriousness, I probably could have had a colder shower, a little more sleep and some decaf. I did get grief over it, and what bothers me about that, frankly, is I don’t want it to overshadow what the agents did in that case.”

Fitzgerald said complaints that he was “over-zealous;” that he “criminalized” standard political practice in Illinois so that elected officials can’t know what’s legal and what’s not; are off-base.

“As much as we hear how there’s no notice of what an offense is, it seems like lots of people are shredding stuff, deep-sixing computers, burning zip drives in barbecue grills, that somehow they’ve figured out that what they were doing was wrong,” he said.

Fitzgerald said he hasn’t been offered any job in the Obama administration.

Do the prison terms that his office has secured for the people he convicted weigh on his conscience?

“There is an empty feeling in your stomach when you realize someone is going to prison,” he said.

How about the suicides of people involved in cases his office worked on, such as businessman and Blagojevich adviser Christopher Kelly?

“The suicides, of course they weigh on people when anyone takes their life,” Fitzgerald said. “I think it’s been really unfair how they’ve been portrayed. People have talked about suicides in cases we have nothing to do with.”

Fitzgerald, a Brooklyn-reared Harvard Law grad who’s been a prosecutor for nearly 24 years, earned a reputation as a fearless crime-fighter and corruption-buster.

Under his tenure, Illinois’ last two governors — Republican George Ryan and Democrat Rod Blagojevich — were convicted of corruption and sent to prison.

So were other prominent political figures, including William Cellini, Edward Vrdolyak, Tony Rezko and Stuart Levine.

In addition, his office sent four dozen people to prison in an investigation of the city of Chicago’s corruption-riddled Hired Truck Program, convicted media baron Conrad Black of financial crimes and former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge of lying about police torture and attacked the Chicago Outfit with the landmark “Operation Family Secrets” mob investigation.

Fitzgerald said he’s amused at how he gets credit for the convictions his prosecutors secure.

“I can steal a fraction of 1 percent of what they do,” Fitzgerald said. “I think, in Chicago, for some reason, the U.S. attorney gets personalized more than the office. This is an institution made up of a whole ton of people, and they do the work ... By the time it gets to me, my job is to sign something everybody else has been vetting.”

Fitzgerald was twice appointed as a special prosecutor by the U.S. Department of Justice. Before arriving in Chicago, as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York, he had brought the first indictment against Osama bin Laden and prosecuted New York organized-crime figures John and Joe Gambino.

He was appointed U.S. attorney in 2001, nominated by then-U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, an independent-minded Republican who said he wanted an outsider who wouldn’t feel beholden to any politician.

But Fitzgerald said that doesn’t mean his successor needs to be an outsider as well. He said his home-grown predecessors did a good job and that he has hired plenty of Chicagoans who also have done well at their jobs.

“I think it is extremely important that the U.S. attorney be someone independent,” he said. “I don’t think it’s important what their ZIP code is.”

By tradition, it’s up to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) to recommend the next U.S. attorney. Fitzgerald spoke with Durbin on Wednesday. When asked if Durbin sought a recommendation from him for a successor, Fitzgerald said as far as he knew, Durbin did not.

“When I spoke to Sen. Durbin yesterday, my phone was malfunctioning, so I missed a lot of the call,” Fitzgerald said. “I hope I didn’t offend him. He may have had a conversation with me I have no idea of. If he asks me for any input, I would give him candid feedback in confidence.”

During his tenure as U.S. attorney, Fitzgerald was once referred to by a former female colleague as a “prosecutie” and, in 2005, was named one of the “Sexiest Men Alive” by People magazine, to his great embarrassment.

Asked Thursday what advice he’d give if his successor, too, makes People’s “sexiest” list, he said: “Hide for about 90 days. That’s all you can do.”

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