Look Who's Talking
By Katie Bacon '93
Patrick Fitzgerald '82 announces Scooter Libby's indictment at a press conference. Washington reporters hounded Fitzgerald for tidbits about the investigation.
Patrick Fitzgerald ’82 went after Osama bin Laden long before most in the U.S. took notice. He’s cracked down on gangs and sent mobsters to prison. But he’s best known as the special counsel who brought Scooter Libby to trial. Now, the tight-lipped prosecutor opens up.
Early this fall, Randall Samborn, who handles the press for U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald ’82, walked me around the federal courthouse in downtown Chicago, talking about Fitzgerald and the work he does there. A group of reporters sat outside a courtroom, waiting for the verdict on the Family Secrets case—the city’s biggest organized-crime trial in decades, involving a string of mafia murders gothic even by Chicago standards. (Two days later, the jury agreed with Fitzgerald’s office and found three defendants guilty.) As we approached the reporters, Samborn stopped and whispered, “Don’t tell them you’re here to interview Fitzgerald; they all want to be doing exactly what you’re doing.”
Fitzgerald is willing to talk to the media when it’s required for his job, as it often is in his role as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. But otherwise, at least when reporters are around, he tends to keep his mouth shut. Fitzgerald has gained renown among his peers for his “scary-smart” mind, his unending capacity for work, his quick humor, his unflappability, his modesty, his unwillingness to take political sides. But it was his propensity for silence towards the media that helped him gain the attention of the nation. In 2003, Fitzgerald was named special counsel and tasked with investigating the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity. The case lasted for three and a half years, and resulted in the trial and conviction of White House staffer I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby for perjury and obstruction of justice. During that time, the Washington press corps—both rabid for and accustomed to receiving information—hounded Fitzgerald for tidbits. But he made few public statements. And when he did give a press conference, to announce Libby’s indictment, he deflected many of the reporters’ questions. Fitzgerald became an object of intense scrutiny by those trying to divine which way the investigation would go. With President Bush’s commutation of Libby’s sentence in July 2007, the case is, for all intents and purposes, over, yet Fitzgerald has said few words about it. “I don’t think he’s ever going to talk about the trial,” says David Wilson ’82, a Boston lawyer and close friend of Fitzgerald’s. “He just doesn’t think it’s appropriate.”
At the Libby press conference, Fitzgerald joked about the media's obsession with the case: "I think someone interviewed the person who shined my shoes the other day."
The stubborn, tenacious streak that Fitzgerald displayed throughout the Libby trial has been with him since the beginning. His parents, immigrants from County Clare, Ireland, met in the United States and raised their family in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, N.Y. Fitzgerald’s father was a doorman on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. As Fitzgerald recalls, “He was the type who said, ‘If you’re due at work at 9, you show up at 8.’” His mother, too, had a strong work ethic—and strong opinions about the educational path her son should take. She made him apply to Regis, a Jesuit high school whose rigorous education drew Catholic boys to Manhattan from all over New York City. When her son’s application was rejected, she insisted he call the priest to ask why. (The 13-year-old Fitzgerald was “absolutely mortified,” but he made the call.) As it turned out, the school had received applications from two Patrick Fitzgeralds and had rejected the wrong one.
As a student at Regis, Fitzgerald was surrounded by other boys like him—mainly sons of immigrants with blue-collar backgrounds. At Amherst, where Fitzgerald arrived in 1978, the student body was more mixed—geographically, economically and socially. Fitzgerald, who spent college summers in New York working as a janitor or doorman to make money for school, became adept at living in either world while treating everyone in the same respectful way. “No matter who you are, what walk of life, he’s the same Patrick Fitzgerald,” says Dean Polales, a lawyer who worked under Fitzgerald for three years in the Chicago office. In college, Fitzgerald double-majored in math and economics and became known for his scrappy skills on the rugby field. He went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa, though he tended to keep his accomplishments under wraps. As Walter Nicholson, the Ward H. Patton Professor of Economics, remembers, “He was always late to class. He’d come in sleepy. He didn’t toot his own horn. But you began to notice after a while how well he did.”
In the years since, Fitzgerald has kept in close touch with his friends from Amherst—a group of 20 or so guys whose ribbing of him seems to have increased in tandem with his celebrity. After Fitzgerald was listed in People’s Sexiest Men Alive issue in 2005, his friend Rob Shepard ’82 joked, in an entry in the class’s 25th reunion book, “He wouldn’t have made the top five in our six-man B-dorm room group.” Fitzgerald describes the group’s nearly constant e-mail exchanges as “boisterous but sincere. People let each other have it on a comic level, but when you’re down, they are very supportive. Those guys are friends for life.”
Fitzgerald went directly from Amherst to Harvard Law School. While there, he secured an internship in the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston and got his first taste of life as a prosecutor. It wasn’t particularly auspicious. Fitzgerald described the experience in a speech he gave at Amherst during last year’s Commencement Weekend, when he received an honorary degree. He remembered a day when he helped a prosecutor research a case:
I was pretty hyper—being from New York, you’re a little hyperactive. I found the case, and I’m trying to run … to get it into the courtroom…. There’s an older fellow who was, I thought, sort of small, quiet, and he was leaving the courtroom while I was anxious to get in. I literally bumped into him…. I saw the prosecutor give me a funny look, sort of a smirk. I asked him what I had done wrong. He told me I had just about nearly knocked over the head of the New England crime family.
Fitzgerald had caught the prosecutorial bug, but he felt compelled to do something more profitable. He worked for three years at a corporate firm—and paid back some of his law-school loans—but in 1988 decided to take a job as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. His mother, though, would take some persuading. “That’s when you have the sort of awkward conversation where you try to explain why she left another country so you could go to school here and then go into private practice and then audition for a massive pay cut. It didn’t make sense as the logical thing to do,” he said in his talk at Amherst.
Fitzgerald (center, being sworn in before the 9/11 Commission) helped to convict four members of al-Qaida.
But Fitzgerald never looked back. He loved the work. “People don’t appreciate how rewarding and enriching it is,” he told the audience over Commencement Weekend, explaining why he chose a career in public service. “It’s a rare job where you go to work in the morning and sit around and figure out what is the right thing to do.” From the beginning, he seemed to have the perfect prosecutorial mind for large federal cases: he was able to digest huge amounts of information and to present it in a way that made sense to jurors. His first big case, the 1993 prosecution of mob bosses John and Joseph Gambino for narcotics, jury tampering and murder, among other charges, resulted in guilty pleas to lesser charges in exchange for 15-year sentences. Fitzgerald also helped to convict the Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; Abdel-Rahman is now serving life in prison.
During his years as assistant U.S. attorney in New York, Fitzgerald lived a bachelor’s existence, becoming known as a man who rarely, if ever, left his work behind. He kept clothing in a drawer in his office in case he couldn’t make it home to change, and colleagues knew that if they had to reach him late at night, they should try his office first. For 14 years, he never bothered to have the gas for the stove in his apartment hooked up—he’d had a “bad experience” cooking, he says, and he wasn’t home enough to use it anyway. For certain big cases, Fitzgerald remembers routinely working through the night: “Look, you’re not going to tell the judge, ‘We’re not prepared in a capital murder case because I went home to get a good night’s sleep.’ You just push on. But you don’t feel like you’re suffering; you feel like you’re doing something important.”
In the mid-1990s, the Southern District’s U.S. attorney, Mary Jo White, had something important she wanted Fitzgerald to do: she named him co-head of the newly formed organized-crime and terrorism unit, the first in the nation. Fitzgerald spent time over the next few years investigating the world of radical Islamic terrorism, trying to get a better sense of the type of threats the United States faced. In the process, he became an expert on Osama bin Laden, and, at a time when few in the United States had ever heard of the al-Qaida leader, helped to build a criminal indictment against him for conspiring to attack U.S. military installations. Then came the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which injured nearly 5,000 people and killed 224. Fitzgerald suspected bin Laden as soon as he heard the news.
Fitzgerald and a team of prosecutors and investigators left for Nairobi, Kenya, the day after the bombings, arriving while the buildings were still smoldering and bodies were being pulled out of the wreckage. Fitzgerald set about building a case that would be tried in the American justice system while taking foreign and international laws into account. It was an enormous job—one that involved getting his mind around novel areas of law and figuring out how to pursue a complicated case on foreign soil. “Here, you give people the Miranda warnings,” explains David Kelley, who was, at the time, co-head of the Southern District’s terrorism unit, “but if you’re standing in some slum in the middle of Nairobi, as Pat was, how do you tell them they have the right to counsel when there are none around? How do you satisfy U.S. Constitutional requirements?”
The Southern District handed down an indictment a few months after the attacks, and the case came to trial in New York City in January 2001. In late May the four defendants, all members of al-Qaida, were convicted for their roles in the bombings. Relatives of the deceased had been brought to New York to witness the trial, and when Fitzgerald and the rest of the prosecution team went to see them after the guilty verdict had been read, the prosecutors were greeted with a yell of congratulation. It’s a trial that sticks with Fitzgerald on an emotional, not just an intellectual, level. For him, it was powerful to “watch some of the victims who were maimed and blinded walk into a courtroom and testify about how lucky they were because they were alive. They had such a strikingly different reaction to their lot—they viewed the glass as half-full, whereas I think the more American mindset would be to see the glass as half-empty.”
Fitzgerald (on campus last May) majored in math and economics at Amherst and remains in close touch with his college friends.
While Fitzgerald was immersed in the embassy bombings trial, Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (no relation) was focused on trying to select Chicago’s next U.S. attorney. (As Illinois’s highest-ranking Republican during a Republican presidential administration, it fell to Peter Fitzgerald to recommend a candidate to President Bush.) Traditionally, the job had been given out as a plum political assignment to someone friendly with the mayor. But the senator was “leery of picking someone from the existing power structure,” he says. “I would have lain awake at night, wondering who was trying to influence him.”
So he conducted a nationwide search. First he called Louis Freeh, the head of the FBI, and asked him to name the finest assistant U.S. attorney in the country. Freeh said it was Patrick Fitzgerald. Then the senator called Mary Jo White; same response. In the senator’s mind, it was a bonus that Fitzgerald seemed to have no political ties. He had even chosen “no affiliation” when he registered to vote. The senator had found his man; unfortunately, his man wasn’t returning his calls. At first, Patrick Fitzgerald thought the job offer was a joke put over on him by one of his buddies. After all, this was usually a political job, and he had no political connections. Even once he knew the offer was serious, he didn’t have any time to focus on it, because he was working flat-out on the embassy bombings trial. Finally, colleagues cornered him and helped make sure he got the necessary paperwork done. On Mother’s Day in 2001, the only day Fitzgerald was able to get away from the trial, he flew to Chicago to meet with Peter Fitzgerald and the press. The week before September 11, 2001, Patrick Fitzgerald left New York and moved to Chicago to start his new job.
There are 93 U.S. attorneys, but perhaps only the position in New York’s Southern District carries with it as high a profile as the one in Chicago. Maybe this is because of Chicago’s rich history of—and consequent investigations into—influence-peddling and other forms of public corruption. Fitzgerald resists the cult of personality attached to his job, preferring to share credit among the 150 lawyers and 150 other staffers who work in his office. “For some reason I can’t explain,” he says, “it’s personalized in Chicago, so that people attribute everything to you when it’s really a collective institution.”
For Fitzgerald, making the switch from prosecuting cases to overseeing other prosecutors was an adjustment—he describes it as “sort of like going from driving the race car to sitting up in the stands and trying not to get in the way.” He’s available when one of his lawyers needs him—to talk through tough issues in a case, to help expedite things in Washington. But he’s also learned to delegate and to rely on the team of lawyers he’s put together. “This is a different role; you’re not putting the witness on the stand, so you have to defer to the people who do,” he says. “You have to take your hands off and say, If I were the attorney trying that case, I’d be all over these details. Now I’m not, so I need to step out and let them do their job.” Polales, the lawyer who worked for Fitzgerald in Chicago, remembers the healthy push and pull that would go on in discussions of difficult cases: “He has strong convictions, but he is not closed-minded. He has not an ounce of arrogance, and he will always listen to a reasonable argument.”
Although Fitzgerald’s job as a prosecutor was to focus on the micro-details of each case—filing documents, preparing witnesses—he’s now in charge of establishing the types of cases his office will take on. In Chicago, public corruption and organized-crime cases have always been a priority, and under Fitzgerald’s leadership the office has continued that tradition, winning convictions against, for instance, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan for political bribery and gift-giving and against members of the Chicago mob in the Family Secrets case. “It’s really been a powerhouse office under his stewardship,” says Kelley, Fitzgerald’s colleague in New York’s Southern District and, later, the U.S. attorney there.
But the big policy choice that Fitzgerald has made is to focus a chunk of his office’s resources on combating gang violence. As he acknowledges, the choice is not without controversy. Many believe that federal prosecutors should focus mainly on federal crimes such as securities fraud—and leave prosecution of gang-related violence to local authorities. But Fitzgerald feels strongly otherwise. “We can’t write off whole sections of the population who are afraid to go out of their house or church or school for fear they’re going to get shot,” he says. He’s tried to work collaboratively with state and local officials to screen cases and pick out the worst offenders—those who they believe most deserve the harsher penalties that tend to be given out in the federal system.
To illustrate his philosophy, he points to the particular case of the Black Disciples gang. The gang essentially took over a Chicago housing project as the headquarters of its drug operation, blockading access to the property, frisking residents as they entered, guarding the building at night with snipers who wore night-vision goggles, and pirating a Christian radio station to alert gang members when police were nearby. “If you lived in that housing project, you were basically a prisoner of a gang inside one of America’s great cities,” Fitzgerald says. “We can’t write that off and say it’s a local problem or that it’s not our business.” In 2004, Fitzgerald’s office indicted dozens of members of the Black Disciples; many of them have since been convicted.
Even though the cases could not be more different, Fitzgerald’s philosophy in dealing with the Black Disciples—that the protection the law provides should be equally available to all—is similar to the logic he used in prosecuting Scooter Libby, only flipped on its head: if citizens deserve equal protection, then wrongdoers deserve equal punishment—no matter how high their stature or office. This is the point Fitzgerald made in his press conference upon Libby’s indictment in October 2005, when the prosecutor finally broke his silence with the media. “When a vice president’s chief of staff is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice,” Fitzgerald announced, “it does show the world that this is a country that takes its law seriously; that all citizens are bound by the law.”
These days, in legal cases involving the wrongdoing of political figures, reporters are used to receiving regular doses of information (think of the many news conferences and leaks during the Whitewater investigation in the 1990s). But the Plame case was specifically about the inappropriate sharing of information with the press. Fitzgerald wasn’t about to show his hand. During the nearly two years between his appointment as special counsel and his indictment of Libby, Fitzgerald went about quietly and methodically investigating his case, questioning Karl Rove, Vice President Cheney and President Bush, and pushing Matthew Cooper of Time and Judith Miller of The New York Times to reveal who had told them that Plame was a spy. But as interest in the case grew, so did interest in the mysterious prosecutor behind it. Fitzgerald faced strong criticisms from both the right and the left: Was the investigation a politically motivated targeting of Libby and his superiors? Was Fitzgerald, who’d gone so far as to send Judith Miller to jail, trampling on journalists’ rights to keep their sources confidential? (Criticism boiled up again in 2006, when it was revealed that Fitzgerald had known early in the investigation that Richard Armitage, who’d been Colin Powell’s deputy at the State Department, was the primary source of the leak.)
The hour-long, post-indictment press conference was broadcast coast to coast—except in Chicago, where Fitzgerald was pre-empted by coverage of a White Sox World Series victory parade. He appeared hesitant at first, but as reporters peppered him with questions, he quickly warmed to the task. He addressed the speculation about his politics: “One day I read that I was a Republican hack, another day I read I was a Democratic hack, and the only thing I did between those two nights was sleep.” He joked about the media’s obsession with the case: “I think someone interviewed the person who shined my shoes the other day.” But most of all, he made clear that for a straight shooter like himself, lying to a grand jury, as Libby was alleged to have done, was an offense he could not ignore. “The truth is the engine of our judicial system,” he said at the press conference. “And if you compromise the truth, the whole process is lost…. Any notion that anyone might have that there is a different standard for a high official or that this is somehow singling out obstruction of justice and perjury is upside down. If these facts are true, if we were to walk away from this and not charge obstruction of justice and perjury, we might as well just hand in our jobs, because our job in the criminal justice system is to make sure people tell us the truth.”
Now that the trial is over, now that Libby has been convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, and now that Bush has commuted Libby’s sentence, Fitzgerald will talk about his experience trying to keep his calm inside the Washington, D.C., vortex (even though he still won’t talk about the trial itself). “I’m not saying there weren’t times when I read something in the paper and shook my head, but most of the time I think I went with the flow,” he says. Fitzgerald never fell into the trap of thinking that the case was about him. “The reality is the process isn’t designed to be fair to you, it’s designed to be fair to the system, and you just can’t let it get under your skin. You accept that, no matter what happens, lots of people are going to be mad at you. Then you sit down with your team and say, Since we’re going to get beat up anyway, let’s have the luxury of knowing that we’re just going to do the right thing.”
During the Libby trial, Fitzgerald essentially worked two jobs, shuttling back and forth between the special counsel’s office in Washington and the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago. It’s not hard to predict that he’ll continue to throw himself into his work, but life has calmed a bit. He takes time to run, to travel and to attend the occasional football game at Notre Dame. The man who couldn’t be bothered to hook up his stove recently had the kitchen redone in his house in Chicago: “I would not say I’m a frequent cook nor a gourmet cook. But food has been prepared in my kitchen, water has boiled, no fires have been caused.” And the inveterate bachelor got engaged in the fall, to a woman who’s a teacher for Head Start and a marathon runner.
In January 2009, when a new U.S. president is inaugurated, Fitzgerald, along with other presidential appointees, will turn in his letter of resignation. By that time, he’ll have been the longest-serving U.S. attorney in Chicago since the Eisenhower Administration. Many U.S. attorneys go on to join high-profile corporate firms, switching sides to defend white-collar criminals. But those who know Fitzgerald have a hard time seeing him as anything other than a prosecutor. His Amherst classmate David Wilson says, “I know Pat Fitzgerald would not want on his grave, ‘Put away white-collar crooks for 20 years, got them out for the next 20.’ That’s not him.” Peter Fitzgerald, the senator who plucked Fitzgerald out of the ranks of assistant U.S. attorneys and picked him for his current job, has his sights set even higher for his nominee: he thinks Fitzgerald should be chosen as either head of the FBI or attorney general. “To me, he’s the most qualified person in the country. But it would require a president who doesn’t put a crony in the office.”
Fitzgerald himself is, characteristically, keeping his cards close to his chest, except to say that for the first time in a very long while, he might like to take a break—travel a bit, clear his head, figure out what’s next. “In my wildest imagination, I did not ever think I would be U.S. attorney in Chicago, and so at a certain point you stop knowing where your foot’s going to land. That used to sound scary to me, but now it sounds a little bit liberating.” One thing seems clear: given that this quietly dogged prosecutor is the man who has successfully pursued the Chicago mob, the Bush Administration and al-Qaida, it’s hard to imagine we won’t be hearing from him again.
Katie Bacon ’93, an editor and writer based in Boston, has written for TheAtlantic.com, The Harvard Law Bulletin and other publications.
Photos by Charles Quigg '09, Chip Somodevilla/Stringer Getty Images, Jim Young/Reuters/Corbis and Larry Downing/Reuters/Corbis.
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