US Attorney Fitzgerald to talk life after Chicago

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FILE - In this June 27, 2011 file photo, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois Patrick Fitzgerald speaks at a news conference after former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was convicted by a jury of 17 of 20 corruption charges. On Wednesday, May 23, 2012, Fitzgerald's office announced that he is stepping down effective June 30, 2012. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

CHICAGO (AP) — U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald seemed perfectly suited for his job: Relentless in going after corruption and seemingly oblivious to the politics of the public figures, government officials and business leaders his office prosecuted and sent to prison.

On Thursday, the man who held the job of U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois longer than anyone else is scheduled to talk about his decision to leave at the end of June. In a written statement Wednesday, Fitzgerald only said that he would take the summer off before considering other job possibilities.

The questions Fitzgerald is likely to face will focus not only on his future, but who might replace him and the continuing fight against corruption in Chicago and Illinois.

After a high-profile career that spanned nearly a quarter century and included prosecuting terrorists, mobsters, corrupt governors and a presidential aide, Fitzgerald will have no shortage of options.

Anton Valukas, who held the same job in the 1980s and now is the chairman of the Chicago law firm Jenner & Block, said the nation's largest law firms likely will try to recruit Fitzgerald, but that he wouldn't be surprised if he is considered for a high political post, such as FBI director or U.S. attorney general.

Former Illinois Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, who recruited Patrick Fitzgerald to the Chicago job in 2001, said Fitzgerald may want to spend some time in the private sector, either at a law firm or as general counsel for a Fortune 500 company. Fitzgerald and the former senator are not related.

"He's done an incredible job and ... most of us in this profession think the world's wide open for him," said Valukas, who recently completed his examination of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy.

Fitzgerald has said in the past that he has no interest in political office, but never has ruled out anything else, including the FBI job for which he has been a rumored contender for years. After being appointed by Republican President George W. Bush and keeping his job under Democratic President Barack Obama, the intensely private prosecutor has never publicly made his politics known.

Now, he'll address his reasons and perhaps his plans in the same spot where in 2008 he announced the arrest of Rod Blagojevich and famously said the former Illinois governor's actions would make "Lincoln roll over in his grave."

He'll almost certainly be asked to reflect on what has by any measure been a remarkable tenure that included successful prosecutions of Blagojevich, ex-Gov. George Ryan, former Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, media mogul Conrad Black, Chicago aldermen, powerful city officials and others.

Fitzgerald is married to a schoolteacher and has two young children.

"When I was selected for this position in 2001, I said that it was one of the greatest privileges that I could ever hope for," he said in a statement Wednesday. "I believe that even more now after having the privilege of working alongside hundreds of dedicated prosecutors and agents."

Speculation over a replacement for Fitzgerald is also set to begin in earnest.

Valukas said he would be surprised if Democrats try to permanently replace Fitzgerald before the November presidential election and that he expected an interim U.S. attorney to be named while "a serious search" gets under way.

Former federal prosecutor Phil Turner, who worked in the northern Illinois office before Fitzgerald's tenure began, said Obama and other Democrats also might want to name a replacement beforehand — perhaps a woman.

Turner said whoever is chosen should "understand the nature of the power" of the office and "approach the job with humility."

Turner has criticized Fitzgerald for his comments about Blagojevich immediately after the arrest. The top prosecutor "has the potential to do lot of good but left uncontrolled can destroy and harm a lot of people," Turner said.

Joel Levin, who worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago under Fitzgerald from 2001 to 2008, said there are a "number of experienced" people in Chicago, but he hopes the next top prosecutor is someone like Fitzgerald with "hands-on experience in the trenches."

Job prospects or no, the timing of Fitzgerald's announcement makes sense coming not long after the imprisonment of Blagojevich and remaining major cases stemming from the yearslong investigation of the former governor.

It was that case that tested Fitzgerald like no other in Chicago.

From the day of Blagojevich's 2008 arrest, when Fitzgerald characterized the former governor's actions as a "political corruption crime spree" that would "make Lincoln roll over in his grave," he has been scrutinized for the case.

"I worked under three U.S. attorneys and none of them ever would have uttered such comments, and if any assistant did, he or she would have been fired immediately," said Turner, who worked in the northern Illinois office before Fitzgerald's tenure began.

Criticism mounted when the jury in Blagojevich's first trial deadlocked on most of the charges, including the most damaging allegation that he tried to sell Obama's vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder.

The Washington Post published a scathing editorial saying Fitzgerald had his shot and "should stand down before crossing another fine line — the one that separates prosecution from persecution." The Wall Street Journal called for his resignation or removal.

Undaunted, Fitzgerald tried Blagojevich again and secured a conviction that resulted in a 14-year prison term for the ex-governor.

While critics insist Fitzgerald crosses lines, attorneys in his office are intensely loyal.

"He's just a guy who does the right thing," said Levin, who helped prosecute Ryan. "He is a person of incredible integrity."

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of a Manhattan doorman, Fitzgerald spent years advancing his career one criminal case at a time. He earned a reputation as a tough hard-working anti-corruption prosecutor.

As an assistant U.S. attorney in New York he successfully prosecuted major terrorism cases, including against those accused in the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, and against Omar Abdel-Rahman, the so-called "blind sheik," who was convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and of conspiring to blow up bridges and buildings around New York.

In 1993, he helped jail a Gambino crime family capo and three other mobsters for murder, racketeering, narcotics trafficking and other crimes. And he supervised the 1996 trial of three men who plotted to blow up 12 airliners.

Fitzgerald was among 10 or more people with strong credentials in law enforcement whose names were mentioned a year ago as possible nominees to succeed FBI Director Robert Mueller as his 10-year term neared an end. Obama decided to keep Mueller in place until September 2013.

If Fitzgerald were to be nominated, he could run into opposition on Capitol Hill from Republicans, some of whom viewed Libby's prosecution as prosecutorial overreach.


Associated Press writers Tammy Webber and Jason Keyser in Chicago and Pete Yost in Washington contributed to this report.