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What Will Obama Do With Fitzgerald?

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Barack Obama's election has kicked off a flurry of political speculation in Illinois. Who will fill his vacated senate seat? And how many Chicagoan's will he bring with him to Washington? But local political observers are particularly interested in what will happen to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.

When it comes to the history of U.S. Attorneys in Chicago, Patrick Fitzgerald is already a bit unusual. Most U.S. Attorneys here have served 3 to five years and then gone on to run for governor or take high paying jobs in large law firms. Fitzgerald has already served seven years and President-elect Barack Obama is on the record saying he would keep Fitzgerald right where he is. That would make Fitzgerald even a little more unusual and put him in a league with people like H.M. Ray.

RAY: I'm kind of an aberration. There's only a few of us in this situation.

Ray is a former U.S. Attorney from the Northern District of Mississippi. He was appointed by President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat and kept on by Lyndon Johnson. Ray figured he'd get the boot when Republican Richard Nixon took over, and here's what's so unusual, he didn't.

RAY: I was floored by it. I didn't expect to be re-appointed.

Ray became one of the few U.S. Attorneys to serve under both Republican and Democratic Presidents, 6 different presidents in all. Sid Lezak was another. He died two years ago but he served as U.S. Attorney in Oregon for more than 20 years from Kennedy through to Reagan. His wife Muriel Lezak says her husband had some powerful backers.

LEZAK: We had two Republican senators, Hatfield and Packwood and they supported my husband completely.

While the president appoints U.S. Attorneys tradition dictates that the Senior Senator of the President's party actually gets to choose the person for the job, a nice plum to dole out to a political supporter. But that's not how Patrick Fitzgerald was hired. He's a career prosecutor who was chosen by a former Republican Senator because he didn't have ties to the Illinois political establishment. If Fitzgerald stays on under Obama he's well on his way, well maybe not well on his way, but he's on his way to putting in as much time as Ray and Lezak did.

VALUKAS: Is it unusual that someone like Pat would be asked to stay for an extended period of time? The answer is, it is not common for that to happen.

Tony Valukas was the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois from 1986 to 1990.

VALUKAS: I would be surprised, frankly shocked, if the United State's Attorney isn't stay in office as long as he wants to.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys working under Fitzgerald successfully prosecuted former Illinois Governor George Ryan, they prosecuted cases involving corrupt hiring practices in Chicago's city hall, and bribery and kickback schemes in Illinois state government under Governor Rod Blagojevich. Lots of people in Chicago -- editorial writers, columnists, politicians, lawyers, -- they've all expressed concern that Obama might appoint someone else and that would bring an end to those investigations. But even if Fitzgerald were to be replaced, those investigations wouldn't end.

BURNS: The nice thing about that office is when you come in the cupboard is never bare, and when you leave the cupboard is never bare.

Jim Burns was the U.S. Attorney in Northern Illinois from 1993 to 97. He says when he came into office there were investigations underway, and he couldn't have shut them down even if he had wanted to.

BURNS: As U.S. Attorney, you can not dictate to the federal investigative agencies, you can't dictate to the FBI shut it down. Remember you've got a lot of career agents, and a lot of career prosecutors. Very good people. And if you go in and start playing politics, you think they would leak to the media? Somehow they would lea... It would be a fire hose.

So even if Fitzgerald goes, there are lots of career prosecutors and investigators that have spent years working on public corruption cases that they'll see through to the end. But Burns says Fitzgerald does deserve credit for increasing the heat on local politicians. Fitzgerald's successful prosecutions have attracted attention and dollars from Washington. Burns points out that in the last few years, the Chicago FBI office has gone from having only one public corruption squad to having three.

I'm Robert Wildeboer, Chicago Public Radio.

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