US Attorney Fitzgerald talks about resignation

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said Thursday he isn't sure what his future holds as he steps down from the job he has held for 11 years. He ruled out elected office and hinted that switching sides and becoming a defense attorney wouldn't suit him.

But the highly regarded Fitzgerald, 51, did say he could see himself accepting another government position, if asked.

"Whenever the phone rings in the future and the (caller) ID says 'public service calling,' I (will) answer the phone," said Fitzgerald, addressing a news conference in Chicago.

He added that he has not discussed the possibility with the Obama administration about becoming FBI director, a job for which his name has surfaced several times.

Fitzgerald spoke to reporters a day after his office announced he would resign at the end of June. His tenure as the top federal prosecutor in Chicago has been longer than his predecessors.

Despite years of speculation that someone as dogged and uncorruptable could appeal to voters, Fitzgerald emphatically ruled out running for elected office, saying he is "not wired" for politics.

"People have terms for a reason," said Fitzgerald, who has two young children with his wife, a teacher. "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."

After a 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 held the same job in the 1980s and is now the chairman of the Chicago law firm Jenner & Block. He said the nation's largest law firms likely will try to recruit Fitzgerald.

Yet, Fitzgerald seemed to throw cold water on the idea of becoming a private defense attorney.

"I am a government person," he said.

The focus now shifts to Fitzgerald's replacement. Fitzgerald himself offered no hint on who 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 presidential election and that he expected an interim U.S. attorney to be named while "a serious search" gets under way.

Fitzgerald said he spoke with Illinois' top-ranking U.S. senator, Dick Durbin, about issues surrounding possible replacements — but his malfunctioning smartphone complicated that discussion.

"He may have had a conversation with me," Fitzgerald said, smiling. "But I had no idea what he said."

The president nominates a replacement, but senators have at least some say, as the Senate confirms the nominee.

Former federal prosecutor Phil Turner said President Barack Obama and other Democrats might want to name a replacement before the election — perhaps a woman.

Joel Levin, who was 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."

The timing of Fitzgerald's announcement makes sense — not long after former Gov. Rod Blagojevich reported to a Colorado prison to serve his 14-year sentence. 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," Fitzgerald has been under intense scrutiny.

Legal observers blasted Fitzgerald for characterizing the case so colorfully before it went to trial, saying it gave the defense an opening to argue Fitzgerald had tainted the jury pool.

A regretful-sounding Fitzgerald addressed his impassioned comments about Blagojevich and Lincoln for the first time at any length on Thursday, chalking it up to too little sleep and too much coffee.

"It sounded like a good idea at the time," he said.

The jury in Blagojevich's first trial deadlocked on most charges, including the allegation that he tried to sell Obama's vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder. Undaunted, Fitzgerald tried the former governor again and secured a conviction.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Fitzgerald advanced his career one criminal case at a time and earned a reputation as a 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 in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

The intensely private prosecutor has never publicly made his politics public. Fitzgerald was appointed by Republican President George W. Bush and kept his job under Democratic President Barack Obama.

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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.

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Follow Michael Tarm at www.twitter.com/mtarm.