U.S. Prosecutor Fitzgerald in Chicago is Stepping Down

U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald in Chicago said he is stepping down on June 30, ending a 24-year career in which he prosecuted one White House aide, two governors, state and municipal job holders and terrorists.

“His aggressive prosecution of wrongdoing -- including politicians in both parties -- has given fair warning that no one is above the law,” U.S. Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois said in a statement on the prosecutor’s announcement.

An appointee of Republican President George W. Bush, Fitzgerald took office in September 2001 as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, which comprises 18 counties and 9 million people.

During his decade-long tenure, he successfully pursued cases against Republican Illinois Governor George Ryan; his Democratic successor, Rod Blagojevich; the newspaper publisher Conrad Black; I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a Bush White House aide; and Robert Sorich, an aide to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

“I think Patrick Fitzgerald is the best prosecutor that I’ve ever worked with,” Sorich’s attorney, Thomas A. Durkin, told reporters today at the Chicago federal courthouse.

Some Disagreements

“I don’t see the world in the same black and white as he does,” said Durkin, 65, who said he’s practiced law since 1974, all but four of those years defending criminals in federal court. “My world is more gray. So I’ve disagreed with him philosophically on many occasions. But I’ve never distrusted his belief in his own position.”

Fitzgerald, 51, who scheduled a press conference for tomorrow, has no immediate employment plans and “will take time off this summer before considering career options,” according to a statement issued by his office.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Fitzgerald began his career as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan in 1988, ultimately serving as chief of its organized-crime and terrorism unit. There he prosecuted crimes arising from the 1998 al Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

He continued to pursue terrorism cases in Chicago. Attorneys in his office in 2007 obtained obstruction of justice convictions of two men accused of aiding the Palestinian group Hamas, which the U.S. government labeled a terrorist organization.

Tahawwur Rana Conviction

His office last year won the conviction of a Canadian citizen, Tahawwur Rana, who was accused of aiding a plot to attack a Danish newspaper that in 2005 published inflammatory cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

Rana won acquittal on allegations he’d helped plan a November 2008 terror spree in Mumbai that resulted in the deaths of 160 people over three days.

Those experiences led Durkin today to call Fitzgerald “the premier prosecutor in the country for terrorism-related cases.”

Acting as a special prosecutor, in March 2007 he won Libby’s conviction for lying to investigators probing the 2003 leak of Central Intelligence Agency official Valerie Plame’s identity. Later that year, prosecutors in his Chicago office obtained Black’s conviction on fraud and obstruction charges.

Black later won appellate reversals on two of the four counts for which he was found guilty. Libby’s sentence was commuted by Bush.

NPR Appearance

In July 2007, Fitzgerald made a celebrity guest appearance on the National Public Radio news quiz program “Wait... Wait.. Don’t Tell Me!” during which he recounted his experiences as a doorman and janitor while working his way through law school.

“He’s a true believer” said Andrea Lyon, a DePaul University law professor and criminal defense attorney who was part of the Ryan defense team. “Perhaps that may have resulted in some things that I regard, that many Americans regard, as over-reaching, but not from any venal intent.”

Ronald Safer, the Schiff Hardin LLP managing partner, who represented one of Black’s co-defendants, credited Fitzgerald and his office with anti-corruption efforts.

“When you look back, it was a great decade of public corruption prosecutions, and he was at the helm,” Safer said.

His client in the Black case, ex-Hollinger International Inc. General Counsel Mark Kipnis, won appellate reversal of two fraud counts for which the jury had found him guilty, and the trial judge dismissed a third.

“Patrick Fitzgerald has served the American people and the citizens of Illinois with the utmost integrity and a steadfast commitment to the cause of justice,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a press statement.

A Brooklyn, New York, native, Fitzgerald graduated from Amherst College before law school, according to his Justice Department biography. He married Jennifer Letzkus, a schoolteacher, in 2007. They have two children.

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