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Editorial: Fitzgerald set high bar for successor

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald  |  AP FILE PHOTO

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald | AP FILE PHOTO

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Updated: July 3, 2012 8:58AM

Almost forgotten in Chicago lore is that back in the 1960s, the office of U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois was occupied by a political hack named Edward Hanrahan.

What a difference a half-century makes.

In the intervening years, Chicago has been blessed with a steady stream of excellence in that office, capped by the spectacular record of Patrick Fitzgerald, who announced Wednesday he will leave on June 30.

You only have to reflect on the stain left by Hanrahan, who in his subsequent job as Cook County state’s attorney oversaw the fatal raid on the Black Panther Party headquarters in 1969, to appreciate how fortunate we’ve been.

But another home run is not guaranteed. Fitzgerald’s replacement must be someone who can build on his sterling record. Chicago’s ethical swamplands are far from fully drained.

It’s hard to overstate Fitzgerald’s contributions.

At a time when some other federal districts around the country were mired in accusations of prosecutions conducted primarily for political gain, Fitzgerald was widely regarded as operating without taking the politics or position of potential defendants into account.

During his 11-year tenure, he oversaw the prosecutions of two governors — George Ryan, a Republican, and Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat. Among his thousands of other cases were those of former Chicago Sun-Times owner Conrad Black and the 42 people, including City Clerk James Laski, convicted after the Sun-Times exposed a scandal in the city’s Hired Truck program. Top political insiders William Cellini and Ed Vrdolyak also were convicted.

Taken together, Fitzgerald’s many prosecutions set a new ethical standard for Illinois.

“I was in the office for eight years . . . and I watched and worked with a number of U.S. attorneys,” said former U.S. Attorney Sam Skinner. “He is second to none. . . . I think he has set the standard.”

That’s not to say there weren’t moments of controversy.

At a 2008 news conference, Fitzgerald said Blagojevich had engaged in “a political corruption crime spree” that would have made Lincoln turn over in his grave, though a prosecutor should never comment so colorfully on the charges.

And many people questioned his decision to jail a New York Times reporter for three months while investigating the leak of the name of a CIA operative, Valerie Plame. I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, top aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted.

But what Chicagoans will remember is a prosecutor who did his job fiercely, with honor and integrity. At times, he even prosecuted cases himself, boosting office morale.

Being apolitical was perhaps easier for Fitzgerald because he was an outsider brought in from New York. But that’s not to say it’s an absolute must that our next U.S. attorney is an outsider. A solid legal background here could be helpful when making decisions about what cases should be brought, who should staff a case or how a strategy will unfold in front of a particular judge.

The next U.S. attorney ideally would have strong experience as a federal prosecutor — Fitzgerald took on the mob back in New York — and perhaps as a defense lawyer, as well. It helps to have seen firsthand how the immense power of a prosecutor can make and break suspects, families, businesses and witnesses.

What’s most important is that Chicago’s next U.S. attorney be incorruptible and play no favorites. He or she must be smart, compassionate and relentless. He or she must be a true leader, capable of earning the respect of the men and women working in the prosecutor’s office

That describes Fitzgerald, of course. We hope it will describe his successor as well.

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