CHICAGO – The lanky, soft-spoken lawman from New York arrived in Chicago with a mandate to clean up corruption-plagued Illinois. And after a decade on the job, Patrick Fitzgerald had helped put two successive governors and a long procession of other public officials behind bars.
Months after the consummate outsider resigned as head of the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago to enter private practice, the White House is expected to name Fitzgerald's replacement soon from among four finalists — all of whom are comparative Chicago insiders.
Whoever is picked, the next U.S. attorney will step in to what is widely regarded as Chicago's second-most powerful job, next only to the mayor. The chief prosecutor and around 170 assistant attorneys also have an impact beyond Chicago and Illinois, including by handling major terrorism cases.
"The fantastic thing about Fitzgerald was that he maintained his independence," said Kathleen Zellner, a Chicago-based defense attorney. "I'm not saying these candidates won't be independent, but it's hard to decide to prosecute when you have (such close) connections to a town."
The list of four finalists — Lori Lightfoot, Zachary Fardon, Jonathan Bunge and Gil Soffer — was recently forwarded to the Obama administration by Illinois' two U.S. senators, who set-up a screening committee to vet a longer list of prospective candidates over several months.
All four know their way around the federal prosecutor's office in Chicago — one of the nation's busiest — each having worked there as assistant attorneys at some point. Fardon, for instance, was a member of Fitzgerald's trial team that convicted former Illinois Gov. George Ryan on corruption charges in 2006.
If Lightfoot is named, she would make history as the first African-American and first woman to head the office.
But what stands out about the four, as a group, is that none could be described as an outsider. All four, who are little known outside legal circles, are currently partners in big-name law offices in Chicago. All have spent at least several years of their legal careers in the city.
At the time of his surprise pick in 2001, Fitzgerald was co-chief of the organized crime and terrorism unit for the U.S. attorney's office in the Southern District of New York. The thinking was that he'd be more willing to go after Illinois politicians because he had no ties to them.
It seemed to work, Zellner said. Ryan, a Republican, and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, are both in prison on corruption convictions after investigations spearheaded by Fitzgerald. He helped send dozens of other city and state officials to prison.
Appointing someone with Chicago ties may convey confidence that Chicago is no longer as corrupt as it was, said Gal Pissetzky, another Chicago attorney. He said it could signal a desire to shift focus away from corruption and on to other persistent Chicago crime, such as drug trafficking or gang-related murders.
"If you want to tackle these issues, it might make sense to have someone from Chicago," he said. "They know the inner workings of Chicago. And law enforcement will be more cooperative when you bring someone from the inside, from Chicago."
The finalists haven't spoken publicly about their candidacy, or about whether they would change in office priorities.
In a letter to the U.S. senators describing interviews with the four, however, the co-chairs of the screen committee wrote that, "All share the belief — though with slightly differing ordering — that the primary subject matter concerns of the office should be: 1. Violence and drugs; 2. Public corruption; 3. Financial crimes, and 4. Terrorism."
Lightfoot seems to have especially strong connections to city government, heading the Chicago police Office of Professional Standards between 2002 and 2005. Other candidates have also held administrative posts, including Fardon when he served as the No. 2 in the U.S. attorney's office in Nashville.
"What you see is that this seems to be a selection of people who are more administrators," said Zellner. "It is almost a retreat from a Pat Fitzgerald-type of prosecutor."
That, she added, didn't mean any one of the candidates wouldn't excel.
"You don't get nominated without having really good credentials," she said. "But it is difficult to know what philosophy someone will have until after a year or so. That transition will take time."
Federal investigations can take years before they result in indictments or go to trial, so any shift in direction under new leadership is likely to be incremental and happen over years.
A change in style is more likely, said Pissetzky.
As he racked up flashy convictions — including of reputed mobsters and terrorists — Fitzgerald gained a reputation as a no-nonsense prosecutor who erred on the side of secrecy and typically eschewed banter with reporters. He could be tenacious to a fault, defense attorneys said. Over the years, many complained that Fitzgerald pursued their clients with too much fervor, loading indictments up with as many charges as he could muster.
It's a style that his successor won't necessarily emulate.
Said Pissetzky, "I think they will try to make their own mark rather than trying to follow in his footsteps."
Follow Michael Tarm at www.twitter.com/mtarm.