Prosecutor Fitzgerald Again at Center Stage

Blagojevich case latest of prosecutor's high-profile, high-stakes prosecutions.

December 10, 2008, 11:23 AM

Dec. 10, 2008— -- He's brought down governors, prosecuted terrorists, investigated the CIA leak scandal and made a famous list of "sexiest men."

It's no wonder top career officials at the Justice Department admitted to ABC News that they'd like to clone U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.

He's handled some of the most high profile cases at the Justice Department and is widely known for his intense work ethic. On Monday, the 47-year-old Fitzgerald was before the American people again, telling reporters during a news conference -- shown live across the country -- that an investigation conducted through his office had caught Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, "in the middle of what we can only describe as a political corruption crime spree."

Among other things, Blagojevich allegedly tried to sell President-elect Obama's former U.S. Senate seat in exchange for political favors and contributions. It was conduct, Fitzgerald said, that "would make Lincoln roll over in his grave."

The son of Irish immigrants, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native worked as a doorman and a janitor to pay his way through college. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst College in 1982 and proceeded to Harvard Law School, obtaining his degree in 1985. Fitzgerald joined the Justice Department in 1988, after three years at the New York law firm Christy & Viener.

He rose through the ranks at Justice, prosecuting mob and terrorism cases at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan. He worked on the case of the "Blind Sheikh," Omar Abdel Rahman, and other defendants in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, and oversaw the investigation of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

An 'Elliot Ness' Kind of Career

Fitzgerald also worked on the government's case against Osama bin Laden. When he wasn't tracking terrorists, Fitzgerald still found time for organized crime, working on the 1993 trial of John Gambino, part of the larger investigation of the Gambino crime family.

His workaholic approach and long hours have become legend in legal circles. One career Justice Department employee told ABC News he only knew Fitzgerald's office phone number, because he was always there, even on Sundays.

A Chicago Magazine profile of Fitzgerald in 2002 bolstered that impression, noting that even after eight years in his former Brooklyn condo, he hadn't called a utilities company to have the gas switched on.

But the long hours have taken their toll, at least on his past pets, according to one anecdote from the same Chicago Magazine article, which has become Justice Department legend.

"To teach him a lesson about the dangers of leaving his cat alone while he hotfooted it around the globe chasing terrorists, Fitzgerald's colleagues on an anti-terrorism task force once kidnapped the cat and took snapshots to show Fitzgerald some possible endings for the poor creature: holding the cat off the Brooklyn Bridge, putting a gun to its head and visiting a Chinese restaurant," the magazine reported.

Asked to confirm the cat-napping operation one longtime Fitzgerald associate from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York told ABC News, "Some secrets I take to the grave." As for the cat, the magazine said it ultimately ended up on a farm.

But in a move that suggests he's made time for matters outside of work, Fitzgerald married Chicago teacher Jennifer Letzkus earlier this year, leaving a trail of broken hearts for those who had hoped to snag one of People Magazine's "Sexiest Men of 2005."

Of that sexy superlative, the intensely private Fitzgerald told reporters at the time, "I've played a lot of practical jokes on people for a lot of years and they all got even at once. OK, new topic!"

And he has many other topics on which to focus his attention. After 13 years working as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York, former Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill, who is no relation, suggested Fitzgerald for the job of U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. The lawmaker tapped him as an outsider who could clean up corruption in Chicago.

President Bush appointed Fitzgerald to take the helm and oversee more than 300 employees, including 160 assistant U.S. attorneys. He started the job 10 days before the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Chicago Corruption Specialist

In Chicago, Fitzgerald prosecuted the now-imprisoned Republican Gov. George Ryan of Illinois in a federal corruption case involving the sale of illegal state licenses. His office also handled the prosecution of publishing magnate Conrad Black, who was convicted on racketeering, fraud and obstruction of justice charges. On Tuesday, he added the current governor to his office's list of corruption targets.

But his work extends beyond the borders of the 18 counties in northern Illinois, which his office serves. Fitzgerald was appointed the special counsel in the CIA leak investigation, involving Valerie Plame, which resulted in the 2007 conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. A federal judge sentenced Libby to 2½ years in prison, but Bush commuted the sentence before he reported to prison.

With a prosecution that reached into the innermost circle of the White House came some intense criticism. Some said he was too harsh, allowing for the imprisonment of journalists, most famously former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who refused to comply with subpoenas they saw as unfair.

After a judge ordered Miller to jail for contempt of court in 2005, Times executive editor Bill Keller called the action "a chilling conclusion to an utterly confounding case." Miller later testified after working out an agreement with her then-confidential source Libby.

But another reporter caught up in the probe, who opted not to go to jail, acknowledged Fitzgerald's dedication to the case.

Matthew Cooper, the former Time Magazine reporter who was one of several reporters linked to the leak investigation, wrote an open letter to Blagojevich on his blog on, "When I became a government witness, he interviewed me alone and knew the details of my case better than I did. He doesn't rely on a phalanx of aides, although he has them. He knows the case and will make the decisions himself."

Several former Bush administration figures are alleged to have pushed for Fitzgerald's ouster, including former White House adviser Karl Rove. One former Justice Department aide admitted in congressional testimony that he labeled the federal prosecutor "undistinguished" during the run-up to the controversial firing of at least nine U.S. attorneys in 2006. Under questioning from Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, at the 2007 hearing, Kyle Sampson admitted that he "immediately regretted" adding Fitzgerald's name to the list.

Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor and deputy co-counsel during the CIA leak investigation who is now a partner at the law firm DLA Piper, said of Fitzgerald, "All of the accolades are deserved, there is no hype."

"He is extremely smart. He is extremely hardworking. … It's the whole package," Zeidenberg said. "He has an incredible work ethic."

Although Fitzgerald's term as U.S. attorney is set to expire at the end of the Bush administration, officials and legal experts have speculated that Fitzgerald could become the chief of the Justice Department's Criminal Division or serve as the deputy attorney general; some also believe he could be appointed the next FBI director after Robert Mueller's term ends.

But Fitzgerald's tenure in Chicago might not end just yet -- Durbin, Illinois' senior senator, and the President-elect have expressed support for Fitzgerald's work as a prosecutor.