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LIBBY CONVICTED: PARDON DEBATED; SPECIAL PROSECUTOR

Crime-buster from Chicago makes big score

Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, was cheered and criticized in Washington on his way to convicting Libby.

March 07, 2007|Rudolph Bush and Matt O'Connor | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Patrick J. Fitzgerald has been living a dual life.

As the top federal prosecutor in northern Illinois, Fitzgerald has solidified a reputation as a no-nonsense corruption buster, an "Eliot Ness with a Harvard degree," as a friend once described him.

In his other job, as the Justice Department's special prosecutor investigating the leak of a CIA agent's identity, Fitzgerald, 46, has stood in the spotlight of Washington, praised and pilloried over the prosecution of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

On Tuesday, the career prosecutor scored the highest-profile victory of his career with Libby's conviction.

A loss surely would have called into question his tenure as special prosecutor. But the jury's verdict is vindication for Fitzgerald, who was sharply criticized for failing to indict anyone for the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's name to reporters.

"It was important for Pat to win, and he did," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Patrick M. Collins, the lead prosecutor in the trial of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan.

Even with a win, Fitzgerald returns to Chicago as a controversial figure on the national stage.

To many, he is the prime example of an overzealous lawman, securing an indictment by stomping on traditions such as the secrecy of reporters' sources.

To others, he is one of the few prosecutors willing and able to take on entrenched politicians and their cronies.

Meanwhile, there is some question whether Libby's conviction, an embarrassment for the Bush administration, will have political ramifications for Fitzgerald.

At 5 1/2 years in office, Fitzgerald has already had the longest tenure of any U.S. attorney in Chicago in almost half a century.

If he were removed now, the White House likely would face a firestorm of protest, especially since the Democratic Congress is already looking into whether the administration played politics in the recent firings of other U.S. attorneys.

In Chicago and around the state, Fitzgerald has made political enemies with his office's successful prosecutions of Ryan and high-ranking members of Mayor Richard M. Daley's administration, as well as the indictment of a top fundraiser for Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Antoin "Tony" Rezko.

Nevertheless, he has received endorsements from Republicans and Democrats serving Illinois in Congress. Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), who has worked closely with Fitzgerald on gang and drug issues, said the prosecutor had a lot of support.

"I see no partisanship in him whatsoever," Kirk said. "He's the ideal face of a prosecutor who just follows the wrongdoing wherever it leads."

But former Gov. Jim Thompson, a Republican and former U.S. attorney, scoffed at the idea that someone in Fitzgerald's position could become politically untouchable.

"Nobody is in that category," Thompson said. "He serves at the pleasure of the president."

Those who know Fitzgerald well say the Libby case may change perceptions of him but won't change the man.

"Pat is not a guy who is self-aggrandizing. He's not going to do his job or approach his job any differently," said Zachary Fardon, a friend of Fitzgerald's and a former prosecutor who helped convict Ryan.

When Fitzgerald arrived in Chicago in 2001, he was known in legal circles as the nation's preeminent terrorism prosecutor.

He secured a conviction in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and drafted an indictment of Osama bin Laden before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But his office's efforts in Chicago to prosecute terrorism cases have been less successful. In the high-profile cases of Enaam Arnaout and Muhammad Salah, prosecutors failed to convict either man of terrorism, though they were found guilty of lesser crimes.

Greater success has come in the area of public corruption, a traditional strength of the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago. In addition to Ryan, prosecutors under Fitzgerald convicted Daley's former patronage chief, Robert A. Sorich, of corruption.

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