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Fitzgerald now at home in Illinois, but state's culture of corruption remains sore point

Crime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemUnrest, Conflicts and WarPoliticsTheftMumbai Terror Attacks

He arrived in Chicago just days before the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, a tough, uncompromising New York prosecutor already steeped in fighting the new international threat.

His outsider status and appointment to an already high-profile position in the city drew intense attention -- fascination really -- and he would go on to earn huge headlines for convicting two governors.

Ten years later, Patrick Fitzgerald, the longest serving U.S. attorney in Chicago's history, is still here fighting threats old and new.

Just weeks ago, Fitzgerald created a terrorism unit in the office, recognizing what he and other prosecutors learned in the 10 years since the Sept. 11 attacks. He has also turned his attention to what he considers a serious emerging threat to national security and private industry: cybercrimes and trade secret theft.

And while it's often rumored that Fitzgerald, 50, will be promoted to Washington, in the past decade he has started a family and now calls Illinois home. He doesn't seem to be ruling anything out, but the work here in Chicago still drives him, he said in a recent interview.

"I love my job and come to work every day and just try to do my job the best I can," Fitzgerald said in a meeting with the Tribune's editorial board. "And let other things take care of themselves."

Many U.S. attorneys leave office when the Washington administration changes, but Fitzgerald, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2001, was retained by President Barack Obama.

"Am I surprised he is still here? I am grateful," said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro. "I haven't been surprised in the past three or four years. I think he has turned into a Chicagoan. The first five or six, I thought they would make him an offer he couldn't refuse."

Fitzgerald arrived with a reputation as one of the toughest prosecutors in the country. He remains a workhorse, putting in long hours. It is only in the past couple of years, as he got married and had two children, that he has showed any hint of slowing down.

Defense attorneys and others talk about his uncompromising view of right and wrong.

"It's my job and the job of all the other defense attorneys to make sure it's done the right way," said Patrick Cotter, a criminal defense attorney with Barnes & Thornburg. "Every once in a while minnows do get caught in the net. ... He is tough. He is honest. And he is hardworking. When you have a prosecutor who cares about getting it right, they believe. Pat's a believer. I think he believes in the law. I think he thinks the law is what holds it together and it's something worth devoting your life to."

Over the decade, Fitzgerald has found himself in the headlines for reasons as whimsical as making People magazine's 2005 sexiest men alive list (smart guy category and pre-marriage) to the much-criticized special prosecution of vice presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby for obstructing justice. He guided the biggest mob prosecution in decades, the Family Secrets case. In 2008, he made unusually strong and controversial public remarks, calling former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's actions "a political corruption crime spree" while announcing the charges against him.

Fitzgerald came to Chicago upon the recommendation of then-U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (no relation), who argued that Illinois needed an outsider to fight public corruption.

In fact, Patrick Fitzgerald inherited an office with a past tradition of public corruption investigations. Two other former governors had been convicted before he arrived, and Operation Greylord in the 1980s revealed a massive case-fixing scam in the court system here, taking down judges and attorneys.

But in his unusually long stretch here, Fitzgerald also has overseen the convictions of top public figures, including Blagojevich and fellow former Gov. George Ryan.

Watchdog groups credit Fitzgerald with bringing his stern attitude about lawbreaking to Illinois public corruption -- especially considering his anti-terrorism reputation in New York.

"He came in with a reputation built on terrorism, and you might have thought he will keep the focus there, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks," said David Morrison, the deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "But no, he realizes here in the Northern District of Illinois, we have our particular problems."

Shapiro said Fitzgerald's background in terrorism and organized crime cases prepared him well for the detailed public corruption cases to come. He also relied on the wealth of knowledge inside the office about Illinois' dishonest politicians. The Ryan investigation was under way when he arrived.

Certainly, his 10 years here have given Fitzgerald a chance to form his own opinions on Illinois' corrupt culture.

"I consider Illinois home, so I am going to be careful about what I say," Fitzgerald said. "We are one of the places that I think has a serious problem and part of it is cultural. There are things that people seem to tolerate at times that wouldn't be tolerated elsewhere. ... I do think it would be healthy if elected officials reinforce the message that this is serious. ... There are times when it's been pretty quiet when corruption has been exposed."

Perhaps because of the timing of his assignment to Chicago -- a week before Sept. 11 -- and his background, many have watched how Fitzgerald handled terrorism cases here.

He arrived with an impressive resume, having indicted Osama bin Laden long before the Al Qaida leader was a household name. Fitzgerald prosecuted the 1993 World Trade Center bombers.

In Chicago, Fitzgerald's terrorism prosecutions have ranged from homegrown plots to the more recent convictions of two Chicago men of Pakistani descent charged in the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai.

Two early high-profile cases, against Enaam Arnaout and Muhammad Salah, did not result in terrorism convictions. Arnaout, a director of a south suburban charitable foundation accused of funneling money to violent overseas organizations, pleaded guilty to racketeering and is serving a 10-year sentence.

And in the most recent terrorism case, Chicagoans David Coleman Headley and Tahawwur Rana were charged in a conspiracy with Pakistani terrorists that resulted in the 2008 murders of nearly 200 people in Mumbai. The terrorists also planned, but did not complete, an attack on a Copenhagen newspaper staff in retaliation for a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad.

Headley, an admitted member of the terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba, pleaded guilty to helping terrorists scout locations for the Mumbai attacks and testified against his lifelong friend, Rana, who was charged with supporting the plots. Rana was convicted of supporting Headley in the Denmark plot and helping Lashkar. But a jury acquitted him of the marquee charge of supporting Headley's scouting work in the Mumbai attacks, a somewhat unsatisfying result for Fitzgerald's office.

Fitzgerald has defended the outcome many times, saying that Headley's guilty plea -- and the opportunity to mine him for details about international terrorism -- reflects the significance of the case. And while Rana was not convicted on the Mumbai charge, the jury found him guilty of supporting Lashkar, the group that pulled off the assaults. Another noteworthy aspect of the Headley-Rana case was how swiftly investigators were able to arrest the men, Fitzgerald said.

Ten years ago when he was probing terrorist activities as a federal prosecutor in New York, there was an impenetrable wall between his office and the FBI. When Headley surfaced in Chicago, federal and local cooperation was markedly improved.

"We're not walking around wondering what the bad guys we know about in our district are doing, which is how we were before 2001," Fitzgerald said.

He recently formed a section in the office that will focus on terrorism, with each attorney assigned directly to law enforcement agencies running investigations. Previously, cases were dispersed among attorneys, depending on the demands of the case. Under the new structure, the attorneys will also be assigned terror groups or types of threats.

The concept is similar to what Fitzgerald emphasized here with gang crimes over the decade. There is now more regular contact with Chicago police and other law enforcement agencies, such as monthly meetings on the most dangerous gang members and the assigning of prosecutors to geographic areas of the city so they can track trends with local police.

"I think he understood the violence problem in Chicago," former Chicago police Superintendent Phil Cline said Tuesday. "It was the first time I had seen a U.S. attorney take so much interest in gang cases."

Looking forward, Fitzgerald is focusing more attention on cybercrime and trade secret theft. In 2009, David Yen Lee, 52, of Taiwan, was indicted and pleaded guilty to the theft of trade secrets from a paint manufacturer.

Fitzgerald believes many more cases are out there, but that corporations are reluctant to come forward for fear that trade secrets will be revealed.

"Chicago is one of the places where it's a serious problem," he said. "We want to hear more about cyberintrusions. We want to hear more about people stealing intellectual property because it's a serious economic problem and it's a serious national security problem. We need to educate corporate America (that) ... we know how to protect them."

Fitzgerald, when asked about reaching his 10-year mark, first mentioned the 170 assistant U.S. attorneys who each day chase crimes -- from child porn to street drug sales to mortgage fraud.

It's only during major cases that the public might get to see the faces of these assistants, if they are called to the microphone at a news conference. Otherwise, everybody talks about Fitzgerald.

"When I was in New York, it was, 'The U.S. attorney's office did X, Y and Z,'" Fitzgerald said. "In Chicago it's, 'The U.S. attorney did X, Y and Z.' I am extremely grateful for the people I work with, who work really, really hard and get no credit."

asweeney@tribune.com

 

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