Who is Patrick Fitzgerald?

Abdon Pallasch profiles the Irish-American prosecutor who is charged with trying to figure out who leaked the name of the CIA agent whose husband criticized Bush's invasion of Iraq. (Photo: Patrick Fitzgerald).

Abdon Pallasch, Contibutor
October / November 2005

Abdon Pallasch profiles the Irish-American prosecutor who is charged with trying to figure out who leaked the name of the CIA agent whose husband criticized Bush’s invasion of Iraq.  

He’s delivering an indictment a day to shady Chicago politicians. He’s jailing journalists as he closes in on President Bush’s top aides, trying to figure out which one leaked the name of a CIA agent whose husband criticized Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

Patrick Fitzgerald serves at the pleasure of the President as the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. That is traditionally a four-year term and Fitzgerald hits his four-year mark in October. And he has stepped on a lot of big toes in both parties.

Will President Bush replace him in October, short-circuiting the investigation of his top advisor Karl Rove and the prosecutions of Republican and Democratic bigwigs in Illinois such as former GOP Gov. George Ryan?

The White House refers questions on Patrick Fitzgerald’s future to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who refers questions back to Bush, though Gonzales, following a brief meeting with Fitzgerald at the American Bar Association convention in August, said, “I have great confidence in Patrick Fitzgerald.”

The quietly relentless Fitzgerald coyly answers questions about his future with quips such as, “I’m just doing my job. And if the phone doesn’t ring and someone tells me to leave, I just keep doing my job.”

Fitzgerald sat down with Irish America last year and talked about growing up in Queens, New York, the son of Irish immigrants, playing the accordion while his sisters performed Irish dance, getting into Regis High School on a scholarship, working his way through Amherst and Harvard Law School as a janitor in New York’s public schools.

He never considered it beneath himself to scrape gum off the bottom of desks and swab down the floors. It sure beat the summer he tried his Dad’s job as a doorman and never knew if the quirky condo dwellers would yell at him for calling them at five in the morning to say someone had just dropped off a package or yell at him for not telling them.

“It’s easier if someone just tells me, ‘I want the building scrubbed.’ You just start scrubbing. You don’t have to worry about anyone’s quirkiness,” Fitzgerald said.

After a few years at a high-paying New York law firm, Fitzgerald worked as a federal prosecutor and convicted Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and 11 accomplices for their roles in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. He helped convict al Qaeda-linked terrorists for bombing the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. He won convictions for John and Joe Gambino.

He impressed fellow prosecutor James Comey who would become Deputy Attorney General, as “Elliot Ness with a Harvard degree.”

When maverick former U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald (R-III.) (no relation) decided to look outside Chicago for a take-no-prisoners prosecutor to come in and clean house in Illinois, he asked FBI Director Louis Freeh for the name of the “toughest prosecutor in America.” Freeh named the rising star in New York.

When Senator Fitzgerald announced he was bringing in an out-of-towner, that outraged Chicago’s silk stocking law firms who had come to see an appointment of one of their own as an entitlement during Republican administrations.

But Senator Fitzgerald wanted someone with no ties to anyone in Illinois; no sacred cows. So Patrick Fitzgerald came to town and “just started scrubbing.”

He brought indictments all the way up to the governor’s office and to Mayor Daley’s patronage chief. Prosecutors under Fitzgerald said they were to work for a boss who encouraged them to pursue cases wherever they led. Coming in to work to find e-mails the boss sent them at two a.m. inspired them to work hard.

Fitzgerald’s work ethic was already legendary in New York before he came to Chicago. Friends discovered that for 14 years he never had the gas connected in his Manhattan apartment because he spent so many hours working at the office.

The editorial pages cheered the fearless bulldog tackling corruption head-on. But along the way, some defense attorneys complained that Fitzgerald was too strident, too determined to get convictions. Unlike some predecessors, he did not allow defendants to turn themselves in, often showing up at their houses at 6 a.m.

“He’s a sole practitioner — he does what he wants to do,” said DePaul University Law Prof. Len Cavise.

“So when it comes to putting reporters in jail, which makes people very nervous, when it comes to indicting people for things no one has ever been indicted for before, like patronage hiring, he sees himself as a trailblazer, a knight in shining armor. He winds up doing things a more level-headed person would not do.”

When former Attorney General John Ashcroft needed to rescue himself from the Valerie Plame investigation, Comey suggested Fitzgerald. Comey left the Justice Dept. in August. The Plame grand jury is set to end in October.

The press was confronted first-hand with Fitzgerald’s blinders-on approach investigating crime when he imprisoned New York Times reporter Judith Miller for refusing to discuss whether an administration official talked to her about the Flame case for a story she never wrote.

Is “Reporter’s Privilege,” the notion that people can confide in reporters, confident that reporters will not sell them out, worth destroying in order to investigate a leak that, in the end, caused no harm, journalism ethicists asked.

Furthermore, the authors of the law against leaking covert agents’ names say it doesn’t apply here because Flame has had a desk job at CIA headquarters for more than five years, meaning she is not “covert.”

But Fitzgerald has proven himself resourceful at finding novel ways to charge people. Chicago newspapers have done exposés for years about City Hall officials hiring and promoting less-qualified hacks with clout over better-qualified workers. But prosecutors could find no crime to charge. Fitzgerald is bringing fraud charges against City Hall officials for falsifying documents and interview records used to justify the patronage hiring.

Ironically, many of Fitzgerald’s public corruption prosecution cases that help build his dragon-slayer image started with newspaper stories made possible by whistle-blowers in government leaking information to the press, confident reporters would never reveal their names.

Fitzgerald now declines sit-down interviews. He does not want to appear to be lobbying for a second term in his job.

Senator Fitzgerald is gone. The two Democratic senators from Illinois, Barack Obama and Dick Durbin, both say they want Bush to keep Fitzgerald. The ranking Republican in Illinois, House Speaker Denny Hastert, gives only the lukewarm sentiment that if Bush asks his advice, he will not tell him to replace Fitzgerald.

But that may be all the endorsement Fitzgerald needs. For Bush to replace him while he’s wrapping up an investigation into Bush’s inner circle — even to kick him upstairs at the Justice Dept. — could make the cover-up look worse than the crime ♦

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