CHICAGO – Illinois' two senators will appoint a six-member committee to help find a worthy successor to outgoing U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, whose tenure in Chicago included the successful prosecutions of two Illinois governors, Sen. Dick Durbin said Monday.
Durbin, a Democrat, said he and Republican Sen. Mark Kirk agreed the ideal applicant should be as fair as he said Fitzgerald was during his 11 years in the post.
"He's done an extraordinary job ... he has been even-handed and gone after leaders in both political parties," Durbin said at a news conference. "He has an incredibly great record of integrity and skill."
Durbin and Kirk each will appoint three members to the committee, including a co-chair, which will solicit and review applications before recommending who the senators should interview. Durbin would not say what kind of qualifications they're looking for in committee members. Durbin said he and Kirk would then present a list of names to the White House.
"This is going to be done between the two of us on a completely bipartisan basis," said Durbin, who spoke to Kirk on Sunday.
Kirk, who is recovering from a stroke, did not attend the news conference. Durbin said Kirk will fully participate in the selection process.
The process is much different than when Fitzgerald was appointed in 2001.
At that time, Illinois Sen. Peter Fitzgerald — no relation to the U.S. attorney — recruited Patrick Fitzgerald, then an assistant U.S. attorney in New York, saying he believed Fitzgerald's outsider status gave him freer rein to crack down on Illinois' corruption.
Durbin said there are well-qualified attorneys within Illinois, but he wouldn't rule out someone from another state.
"I don't think a ZIP code either qualifies or disqualifies a person for this job," said Durbin, who said the next U.S. attorney should have significant experience as a prosecutor.
Fitzgerald's top assistant U.S. attorney, Gary Shapiro, has been named as interim U.S. attorney at Fitzgerald's suggestion. Shapiro, 65, has served as first assistant in the Northern District of Illinois for the past 14 years and has four decades of experience as a federal prosecutor in Chicago.
U.S. attorney's office spokeswoman Kim Nerheim said Shapiro was not available for comment Monday and would not issue a statement. Durbin said he did not know if Shapiro was interested in applying for the job permanently.
Durbin said the committee members could be named within a few days, but will not have a deadline by which to make recommendations.
U.S. attorneys are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, but it's unclear whether that will happen before the November election, Durbin said.
Fitzgerald announced in May that he would retire at the end of June after 24 years as a prosecutor, then take the summer to decide what he would do next. Fitzgerald, who is married to a schoolteacher and has two young children, didn't give a reason for leaving the post at this time, but said public service was in his blood.
He has been mentioned as a possible successor to FBI Director Robert Mueller. He has said he never would consider elected public office.
His announcement came just two months after former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in prison for corruption. Blagojevich's predecessor, George Ryan, also is in prison for corruption. During his tenure in Chicago, Fitzgerald also oversaw the prosecutions of Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, media mogul Conrad Black, terror suspects and mobsters.
Durbin said Fitzgerald's opinion carries a lot of weight, and he might ask him his impression of the finalists.
"It is our hope that when all is said and done, we can find a person of the quality of Patrick Fitzgerald," Durbin said, adding that the U.S. attorney has "the ability to not only keep us safe but also the ability to wield power, either wisely or not wisely. Patrick Fitzgerald handled that in an extraordinary way and we need to make sure his successor continues in that tradition."