CHICAGO (MCT) — Patrick Fitzgerald will be most remembered for taking down two Illinois governors, but the prosecution of a ruthless ex-Chicago police commander may say more about the outgoing U.S. attorney’s style, boldness and willingness to risk a courtroom loss in pursuit of what he felt was right.
For decades, a parade of African-American men had accused Jon Burge of torturing them into false murder confessions that often led to long prison terms. Burge had even been fired for mistreating a suspect, but no criminal charges were ever filed and the retired cop had for years been living quietly in Florida collecting his police pension.
That is until Fitzgerald figured a way around statute of limitation problems that appeared to bar prosecution. A federal jury convicted Burge not of torture but of lying about it under oath during a civil lawsuit, and he was sentenced last year to serve 4 ½ years in prison.
“It’s sad that it took so long, but it would be horrible if it was never addressed,” Fitzgerald said after the verdict.
Fitzgerald, said Chicago FBI head Rob Grant, never shied from a case for fear of failure. “There are times when I have heard Pat say that sometimes you have to risk losing a case,” said Grant. “Sometimes you have the obligation to put all the evidence out there so that everybody can see it, and even if we lose, the fact that we did the right thing matters.”
On Wednesday, the 51-year-old Fitzgerald gathered staff in the ceremonial courtroom at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse to tell them he was retiring from the office effective June 30, ending his nearly 11-year legacy in the sensitive post, by far a record long run for a U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Illinois.
A notorious workaholic, Fitzgerald said he had no job lined up and planned to take the rest of the summer off, likely the longest free stretch in his entire adult life. Fitzgerald received a standing ovation and became emotional more than once during the meeting with staff.
“He came in without having any roots here. He came here with a great reputation, but he had to earn his spurs in this community,” said former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas. “And he certainly has done that. He has served with distinction and honor.”
Patrick Collins, who spent six of his 12 years as a federal prosecutor under Fitzgerald, said Fitzgerald’s time in office “was like no others.”
“It was a decade of successful, high-profile prosecutions by a guy who was unanimously well-liked inside the office,” Collins said. “I don’t think any credible person could second-guess his motives. You could disagree with his prosecutions but not question his motives. That’s the ultimate compliment for a United States attorney.”
The corruption convictions of former Govs. George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich stand as the marquee cases under Fitzgerald’s watch, but they were hardly the only high-profile ones: Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a top aide to then-Vice President Dick Cheney; scamming Chicago Sun-Times owner Conrad Black; murderous crime syndicate thugs such as Joey “the Clown” Lombardo, terrorism suspects and an array of crooked political operatives including the patronage chief and streets and sanitation commissioner for former Mayor Richard Daley.
Fitzgerald arrived in Chicago in September 2001 as a curiosity, a native New Yorker chosen by then-U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald to take on a critical post traditionally reserved for prominent Chicago lawyers. But the Republican senator, no relation to the prosecutor, picked the career prosecutor because he was an outsider with a reputation for being tough and unafraid of challenging entrenched powers.
As a federal prosecutor in Manhattan, he had earned a reputation for tenacity in complex anti-terrorism cases, among them the prosecution of a blind Egyptian cleric for plotting terror attacks in New York. He became an expert on Osama bin Laden long before the world came to grasp his malevolence.
A former colleague in New York memorably dubbed Fitzgerald “Eliot Ness with a Harvard law degree and a sense of humor,” a reference to the G-man who earned his fame fighting Al Capone and bootleggers in the 1920s. The public didn’t see the humorous side of Fitzgerald, who could be a bit stiff at news conferences, but he was down to earth and easy-going in person.
The bachelor from a humble Irish family never hooked up the kitchen stove in his Manhattan apartment with gas and instead used it to store paperwork. He was aggressively non-political, someone with laser-like focus who believed in the law and would enforce it whenever someone broke it, no matter who they were.
In Chicago, he was quick to impress many in the legal community with an extraordinary grasp of the minute details of cases.
Arguing over the seizure of assets in a terrorism case, Fitzgerald launched into a dissertation on the highest-ranking members of al-Qaida, recalled Thomas Anthony Durkin, the defense attorney in the case.
“It was one of the most impressive summations I’ve seen, and he did it with no notes,” Durkin recalled Wednesday.
During his tenure, Fitzgerald has cultivated an almost cult-like following among opinion makers and government reformers for forming a one-man wrecking crew against the culture of political corruption that has long sullied Chicago and Illinois. But the federal prosecutor’s office in Chicago had developed a reputation decades before Fitzgerald arrived on the scene for putting crooked public officials in prison, including a raft of aldermen, judges and even some prosecutors.
Fitzgerald drew rare criticism for remarks he made during his 2008 announcement of charges against Blagojevich when he said the former governor’s “conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave.”
Still, he became a symbol of integrity for many Chicagoans but had to endure being the butt of jokes around the office when People Magazine declared him to be one of the nation’s “sexiest men alive.”
He later married and has two young children, causing Fitzgerald, legendary for his work ethic, to cut back a bit on his office hours, those close to him have said.
David Hoffman, a former Chicago inspector general who also worked as a prosecutor under Fitzgerald, said what is often overlooked is the strides his former boss made in fighting gun and gang violence, concentrating efforts on gang leaders rather than just low-level street crews.
Hoffman said Fitzgerald also has had great success battling organized crime and the exploitation of children. “While there are always ways that office can be changed and improved upon, he gave us a great model for going forward,” said Hoffman.
Ironically, if there was any area in which Fitzgerald’s prosecutions in Chicago appeared to fall short it may have been terrorism, the subject that made his reputation in New York.
Here, the cases have been of less prominence and have resulted in plea bargains on lesser charges or split verdicts by juries.
In 2003 the leader of a Muslim charity was charged with using his organization to funnel money to al-Qaida, but he wound up pleading guilty to racketeering, avoiding prosecution for terrorism. Fitzgerald brought charges against Muhammad Salah of suburban Bridgeview on charges of financing terrorism by the Palestinian group Hamas in the Mideast, but a federal jury acquitted him on the most serious charges and convicted him of obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to 21 months in prison in 2007 for lying about his activities in support of Hamas.
In Chicago’s most high-profile terror trial in 2010, Chicago businessman Tahawwur Rana was acquitted in connection with the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, that killed nearly 200 people, but he was convicted of plotting to kill a Danish newspaper artist who had drawn unflattering images that inflamed the Muslim world. He faces a likely lengthy prison sentence.
To some who knew Fitzgerald well, the timing of his decision to step aside was classic. It was well ahead of the November elections, giving him the room to leave on his own terms.
“Here’s why it’s so classy,” said former U.S. District Judge Wayne Andersen. “If he had waited until after the presidential election, then his departure becomes a political issue. He stepped away from this when his successor could be chosen without that becoming a partisan issue, which is a great gift to this community.”