Lunchbox: Patrick Fitzgerald's Top 10 Political Prosecutions

July 28, 2010

As the jury begins its deliberations in the federal government's case against former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, most people are wondering just what the outcome might be. Guilty on all counts? None? Some? A hung jury? But today at blogs.vocalo.org, we're asking a different question:‚  Where will the Rod Blagojevich prosecution rank in the pantheon of political corruption prosecutions under U.S Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald?

Since arriving to the Northern District of Illinois on September 1, 2001, Fitzgerald has been busy. He's indicted not one, but two Illinois Governors; he's taken on top Democratic fundraisers and old political kingmakers; he's exposed patronage hiring in Chicago's City Hall and brought down the Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO).‚ ‚  When you think about it, it's an astonishing list. So, to get things started, here's our list of the Top 10 Political Prosecutions (thus far) under U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald: 10. Ed Vrdolyak - It's been more than two decades since the former powerful and controversial Chicago Alderman led the charge against Mayor Harold Washington in the infamous "Council Wars".‚  He spent the years since pulling strings behind the scenes as an elusive dealmaker and sometime kingmaker, living up to his reputation as "Fast Eddie".‚ ‚  Thus, Fitzgerald's 2007-08 prosecution and conviction here was huge news for politicos.‚  Even so, Fast Eddie got the last laugh:‚  A judge‚  sentenced him to probation. 9. Al Sanchez -- As the former Commissioner of the City of Chicago's Department of Streets and Sanitation Sanchez was a loyalist to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and a key figure in the powerful and influential Hispanic Democratic Organization. His prosecution was further exposed HDO's election practices and the role patronage hiring plays at City Hall. ‚  His original conviction in 2009 was overturned because the feds failed to mention that a key witness in the trial had a criminal record.‚  Oops.‚  But feds just retried - and won again. 8. Scooter Libby - This top advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney went to prison for perjury in connection with the leak of the identity of then-CIA agent Valerie Plame.‚  As Special Prosecutor, Fitzgerald mounted a case that created more turmoil than convictions, but it still caused big legal headaches for the Bush White House - and for journalists, dramatically altering the landscape of claims of journalistic privilege around confidential sources. 7. Stuart Levine -- A long-time fundraiser and Republican political insider, Levine's prosecution exposed widespread pay-to-play schemes and shakedowns inside the Blagojevich adminstration - as well as further evidence of what the Chicago Tribune's John Kass has called the "combine" style of Illinois politics whereby Republican and Democratic fat cats routinely collaborate to grease the system and line their own pockets. ‚  The prosecution of Levine also helped Feds make the case against Tony Rezko. (see below) 6. Scott Fawell -- At the time of his indictment and prosecution, Scott Fawell was the biggest political figure Fitzgerald's office had taken on.‚  He was not only Chief of Staff to then-Governor George Ryan and his former campaign chair, he was a long-time Ryan loyalist and part of a distinguished west suburban GOP political family.‚  A defiant and arrogant Fawell ultimately buckled under the pressure.‚  His conviction helped bring down George Ryan and showed that Fitzgerald and his team knew how to play hard ball. 5. Tony Rezko -- Following the trend of hooking smaller fish to bait the big fish, the conviction of Illinois businessman and leading Democratic fundraiser Rezko was a key linchpin in the investigation that led to the arrest of Governor Rod Blagojevich in December 2008 and the subsequent indictments of‚ close Blago associates like Christopher Kelly, who ultimately‚  took his own life .‚  But Rezko's indictment rippled far beyond Illinois.‚  We also learned about his connections to President Barack Obama, including a controversial real estate deal that became a significant storyline in the 2008 Presidential Election campaign. 4. Lord Conrad Black - Why should Black be on a list of political prosecutions you say?‚  First of all, he's a knight.‚  Second, his Board of Directors included such political heavyweights Henry Kissinger, Richard Pearle and former Illinois Governor Jim Thompson. Fitzgerald's prosecution of the newspaper tycoon (owner of the Chicago Sun Times, among others) raised significant questions about the oversight and structure of corporate boards. Plus, it generated big time international media buzz for Chicago. But his successful U.S. Supreme Court challenge of Fitzgerald's use of the honest services provision raises new questions about the use of the clause for future political corruption cases. (See #3 below)‚  And now Black is out of prison, out on bail and awaiting retrial. 3. Robert Sorich et al -- Despite the Shakman Decree, it's long been known that hiring inside Chicago's City Hall was juiced by patronage.‚  But not until Sorich did we get a glimpse of how it worked. As head of the City of Chicago's Department of Intergovernmental Affiars, Sorich sat atop the hiring process at City Hall that rigged interviews and changed test scores so that politically connected job candidates could receive positions regardless of qualifications. His conviction exposed the continued use of patronage hiring at City Hall and resulted in several big changes: 1) Established‚  a new independent Inspector General at City Hall, lead by former AUSA David Hoffman; 2) Launched Hoffman's political career as a subsequent U.S. Senate candidate; and 3) Propelled a legal challenge to Fitzgerald's use of the "honest services" clause, which a recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion said went too far. The Court's decision raises new questions about future prosecutions - and the conviction of such notables as Conrad Black (See #4). 2. George Ryan - Former Illinois Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State and one-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee. The Feds successful prosecution of Ryan marked the culmination of the nearly 8 year Operation Safe Road investigation, exposing the infamous "licenses-for-bribes" scheme and shining a light on the larger practice of shaking down public employees for political contributions. The investigation ended 26‚ consecutive years of Republican governors in Illinois, contributed to Ryan's decision not to seek re-election, left the Illinois GOP decimated, and yes, paved the way for the election of Democrat Rod Blagojevich. 1. Rod Blagojevich -- On sheer theatrics alone, this case should earn top honors on this list, regardless of the outcome.‚  From a surprise early morning arrest in December 2008, to revelations of wiretap evidence ('This thing is !#@# ing golden"), to impeachment, to a national media interview tour, to a book deal, to a live weekly radio show, to an appearance on NBC's Celebrity Apprentice, to last minute fights among his defense attorneys, this story (as Blagojevich himself might say) has been full of "testicular virility". Obviously, the outcome of this trial will affect where this prosecution stacks up in the long run.‚  But regardless of the verdict, this case led to the impeachment of a sitting governor and showed that corruption didn't end with the conviction of George Ryan.‚  It also showed the rest of us working stiffs that even a governor can hate his job.
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