US Attorney Fitzgerald talks life after Chicago

MICHAEL TARM
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Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois gestures during a news conference at the federal building in Chicago, Thursday, May 24, 2012, a day after he announced in a written statement he was resigning from the post he held for more than a decade. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

CHICAGO (AP) — U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said Thursday he is 100 percent confident that leaving his post in Chicago after 11 years is the right decision, but he's not sure what his future holds.

"I don't know what I'm doing next, but public service is in my blood," said Fitzgerald, adding he has had no discussions with the Obama administration about the possibility of becoming FBI director, a job for which his name has surfaced several times. One thing he has ruled out, he said, is running for elective office, saying he is "not wired" for politics.

Fitzgerald spoke to reporters a day after his office issued a statement announcing he would step down at the end of June then take the summer off before considering other job possibilities. He has held the job as top federal prosecutor in Chicago longer than anyone else.

"People have terms for a reason," said Fitzgerald, 51. "For the office, it's important that there be change ... I think it will be healthy for me to decompress and sort things out during the summer."

He said any decision would have to be balanced with his family life. He is married to a school teacher and has two young children.

After a high-profile career that spanned nearly a quarter century and included prosecuting terrorists, mobsters, corrupt governors and a presidential aide, Fitzgerald has 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.

Now speculation will shift replacing Fitzgerald, who has a reputation as a tough, relentless prosecutor who seemed oblivious to the politics of the public figures, government officials and business leaders his office prosecuted and sent to prison.

Fitzgerald offered no hints on whom he considers a worthy successor, saying only that "it's extremely important that the U.S. attorney be somebody that's independent."

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 President Barack 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, when Fitzgerald famously said the former Illinois governor's actions would make "Lincoln roll over in his grave."

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.

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. "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.

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.

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