Prosecutor driven to 'do right thing' (always)
The man prosecuting Conrad Black has been called a 'runaway prosecutor' as well as 'totally and completely non-partisan'
The public face of the U.S. government's criminal case against former Canadian media baron Conrad Black is an earnest, middle-aged workaholic with a photographic memory and a relentless drive "to do the right thing."
Patrick Fitzgerald, 46, was a quietly effective crime-fighting government attorney when, in 2003, he was plucked from the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago and appointed special counsel in charge of a criminal investigation into the disclosure of classified information involving the identity of a Central Intelligence Agency operative.
The former doorman, deckhand and janitor, who earned degrees in mathematics, economics and law, soon made a national name for himself challenging the American establishment, including the White House, senior Washington reporters and a former Illinois governor.
"He's driven by principles and dedicated to making sure that people who commit criminal violations, regardless of their place in society, are going to be aggressively and fairly prosecuted, so that no one is going to get a special break," says Robert Kent, a former U.S. assistant attorney who worked with Mr. Fitzgerald for five years.
His critics, however, have branded him a zealot and a "runaway Chicago prosecutor," in the words of conservative columnist William Safire, because of his relentless pursuit of reporters during his prosecution of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff for U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Born in 1960 in Brooklyn, N.Y., Mr. Fitzgerald and his three siblings were raised by Irish immigrants in a devoutly Roman Catholic family. A member of the debating team at his Jesuit high school, he earned tuition money for college by working as a doorman at a residential building on Manhattan's Upper East side, and as a deckhand on commuter ferries in New York Harbour.
Mr. Fitzgerald graduated from Amherst College in 1982 with a bachelor's degree in math and economics, and from Harvard University in 1985 with a law degree. Upon graduation, the six-foot-two former rugby player worked for three years as a litigation associate at New York law firm Christy & Viener.
In 1988, Mr. Fitzgerald became an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Manhattan, a hard-scrabble turf where he spent most of his time prosecuting narcotics trafficking, murder, racketeering and organized crime. In 1993, he participated in the six-month trial against the Gambino crime family that resulted in a guilty plea.
It was during his time in the Manhattan office that Mr. Fitzgerald developed a reputation for simplifying complex information and unearthing obscure laws to get jury convictions. In 1995, for example, he was one of the U.S. government lawyers who participated in the nine-month trial of a blind Egyptian cleric and 11 others in the World Trade Center bombing. Mr. Fitzgerald relied on a rarely used law dating back to the U.S. Civil War era to convict them.
In the years following that trial, Mr. Fitzgerald was named chief of the organized crime-terrorism unit at the Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. He was instrumental in the prosecutions of Osama bin Laden and 22 others suspected of carrying out the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in three African cities.
"He is totally and completely non-partisan," says Peter Fitzgerald (no relation), a former Republican senator from Illinois who nominated him for State Attorney in 2001. "He's not seeking higher political office. He doesn't want a lucrative partnership at a major law firm. He just wants to chase after the bad guys."
Echoes Mr. Kent: "He is hardworking and determined to do the right thing as he sees it. In the justice-versus-the-mercy continuum, he's closer to the justice end of it."
Apparently, when Mr. Fitzgerald was first approached about the job in early 2001, he thought it was a joke because these appointments are typically awarded to politically connected lawyers. He isn't active in politics; in fact, he is registered as an independent.
"We have a long, rich history of political corruption in Chicago," Peter Fitzgerald says in an interview with the National Post. "I wanted someone who was independent of the politics of the state, independent of politics entirely, and I really wanted someone who was good."
Mr. Fitzgerald moved from his New York condominium to become the top federal law-enforcement official in Chicago, the third-largest city in the United States. Appointed by President George W. Bush on the former senator's recommendation, he was named U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois 10 days before 9/11.
"I wanted to nominate someone who wouldn't use the power and authority of the office either to prosecute someone unfairly or protect someone from being prosecuted unjustly," Peter Fitzgerald recalls.
The new prosecutor didn't disappoint. Early into his tenure, Mr. Fitzgerald's office launched an unprecedented crime-fighting crusade against corruption in Illinois. Although he rarely argues cases in court, Mr. Fitzgerald's charges have successfully prosecuted former Illinois governor George Ryan on bribery charges and associates of former Chicago mayor Richard Daley on mail fraud and corruption.
At an annual salary of about US$140,000, Mr. Fitzgerald presides over a staff of more than 300, including 137 assistant U.S. attorneys (25 designated to civil cases and 112 to criminal) who investigate and litigate bank embezzlers, violent criminals, white-collar fraud, corruption and drug trafficking. His district cuts a wide swath across 18 counties along the top of the state, covering a total population of about nine million, about one-quarter of Canada's total population.
The meticulous civil servant with the wide boyish face and receding hairline rarely speaks to journalists -- he declined to be interviewed for this article -- except during press conferences. A bachelor who works killer hours and avoids receiving mail at his home for security reasons, Mr. Fitzgerald makes no apologies for his style.
"As a prosecutor, you have two roles: Show judgment as to what to go after and how to go after it. But also, once you do that, to be zealous. And if you're not zealous, you shouldn't have the job," Mr. Fitzgerald told a Washington newspaper during a rare interview in 2005.
Every year his office pursues an average of 700 cases, an increase that has been rewarded with more resources by the Justice Department. In 2005, Lord Black was only one among the 1,247 defendants indicted in 697 cases launched by Mr. Fitzgerald's office that year.
Canadians got their first look at the Chicago prosecutor two years ago during press conference, when he coolly walked through flow charts outlining the complicated corporate web of Lord Black's companies.
"Conrad Black should thank his lucky stars that Patrick Fitzgerald is not personally prosecuting his case," Peter Fitzgerald tells the Post.
Instead, he will be supervising on the sidelines while a hand-picked team of four assistant U.S. attorneys argue the case against the former media baron and his business associates Peter Atkinson, Jack Boultbee and Mark Kipnis. The U.S. government team is led by Eric Sussman, a 37-year-old who has been with the Justice Department for eight years and previously practised at Sidley Austin LLP, the sixth-largest law firm in the United States. (It once boasted the widow of Abraham Lincoln as a client.) Mr. Sussman, the father of two young girls, is said to share his boss's zeal for public service and his punishing work ethic.
Federal agents from the U.S. Postal Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service are also working on the case against Lord Black.
Regardless of the outcome in the case against the former Canadian press baron, Mr. Fitzgerald's fortunes have likely already been decided. Because they are political appointments, U.S. Attorneys usually remain in office as long as those who appointed them. So, Mr. Fitzgerald's expiry date could coincide with that of President Bush in 2008. If that happens, most expect the veteran civil servant to climb to a higher rung inside the U.S. justice system.