The New Face of the Law

On May 23, 2012, U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald announced he would be stepping down from his post on June 30. This profile of Fitzgerald was published in Chicago in July 2002.

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Patrick Fitzgerald may have arrived in town as the new U.S. attorney in August 2001, but he didn’t really arrive until April 2, 2002, when he stood before the television cameras and announced the stunning news: Gov. George Ryan’s three-decades-old campaign committee was being charged as a “criminal enterprise” whose thirst for money had led to the ever-widening driver’s-licenses-for-bribes scandal.

In a meaty 80-page indictment, Fitzgerald alleged “a pervasive pattern of fraud and corruption,” with schemes that stretched from secretly paying off state employees for campaign work to arranging prostitutes in Costa Rica for Scott Fawell, Ryan’s chief of staff when he was secretary of state. Even the state’s organ donor program was dirty under Ryan, Fitzgerald said; marketing contracts for the program were awarded as political favors to a fundraising friend. All told, the indictment suggests, Citizens for Ryan had bilked the citizens of Illinois out of at least $1 million-including the purchase of an industrial-size shredder to destroy the evidence.

The indictment made U.S. history. It marked the first time a political campaign had been charged under the federal racketeering statute that is ordinarily used against organized crime. It was also thought to be only the third time a campaign had been charged with federal criminal misconduct of any kind, the other two being Richard Nixon’s 1972 Committee to Re-Elect the President, infamously known as CREEP, and three committees linked to Lyndon LaRouche’s 1984 presidential bid.

The indictment represented something else as well-a star turn for Fitzgerald. “Breathtaking in detail and breadth,” says Terrance Norton, a former federal prosecutor who is now executive director of the Better Government Association. Political commentators read the charges as an attack on Illinois’s political culture, a sign of a new aggressive stance toward public corruption.

At the press conference announcing the indictment, Fitzgerald was asked if the defendants hadn’t just been doing things “the Chicago way.” “I’m not going to comment on what ‘the Chicago way’ is,” he said. “What I can tell you is this case is far beyond that. If you look at this racketeering indictment, it consists of a pervasive period of activity of people routinely being diverted from state work to campaign work.”

Right. The Chicago way.

And so Fitzgerald, the Mob-busting, terrorist-chasing 41-year-old prosecutor from New York City tabbed as the outsider who would clean up the town, sealed his place as the political man of the moment, despite his professed political independence (to avoid aligning himself with a party, he doesn’t vote in primaries). Gubernatorial candidates Jim Ryan and Rod Blagojevich can argue all they want about who can best restore trust and integrity in Illinois politics. It is Fitzgerald who is likely to have the most impact on the state’s political culture in the coming years.

The monster indictment against Citizens for Ryan, et al., was just the topper-so far-in a series of aggressive moves by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois. (In fact, on May 21st, Fitzgerald indicted three more associates of Governor Ryan-including his close friend Lawrence Warner-for soliciting nearly $3 million in kickbacks during Ryan’s tenure as secretary of state. “For the better part of a decade in Illinois,” said Fitzgerald as he announced the charges, ”. . . the fix was in for a price.” What’s more, the indictments alleged, Warner had also shared the money with an unnamed “Official A,” who many speculated was actually George Ryan. The governor angrily denied that he had ever taken any kickbacks.)

 

 

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