At least four want to be U.S. attorney
This is from my Sunday column in the print edition of The N-G:
Will politics drive political choice of a U.S. attorney?
Every once in a while I need to be reminded that even the selection of a new U.S. attorney for central Illinois [–] supposedly the top federal law enforcement official in a 46-county area [–] is a political appointment. Unlike the elected county state's attorney, the U.S. attorney is an appointed position.
Politicians [–] in this case, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, in consultation with other Republican congressmen in downstate Illinois [–] will make a recommendation to President Bush. The nominee likely will not be a Democrat; to the winners of the last presidential election go the spoils.
But the nominee doesn't have to be a politician. In fact, this selection is shaping up as an intriguing [–] and a revealing [–] decision for Hastert.
There's been a lot of speculation that the Speaker is not fond of Patrick Fitzgerald, the aggressive prosecutor imported into the northern district of Illinois by former U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Illinois. Peter Fitzgerald contended that a non-Illinoisan had to be brought into the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago to break up the so-called political "combine" that has allowed corruption to fester in many governments and political offices, Republican and Democratic, in Illinois.
Patrick Fitzgerald has done just about everything Peter Fitzgerald could have hoped: he's already prosecuting former Gov. George Ryan and his office is investigating Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's and Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administrations.
So the choice of a U.S. attorney in central Illinois [–] a selection that will be made sometime in the next few months [–] could reveal whether Hastert believes like Peter Fitzgerald did that Illinois government is so corrupt that it can only be cleansed by someone with no political connections in Illinois.
At least four men have applied to succeed Jan Paul Miller as the U.S. attorney in the region that includes Champaign-Urbana and Danville. It also includes Springfield, which some believe is chock-full of political corruption but which yielded not a single official misconduct indictment during Miller's three-plus years here.
Among the four known candidates are two who would seem to have impeccable political connections: state Sen. Rick Winkel, R-Urbana, who has never been a state or federal prosecutor but has the support of three downstate congressman, and Darin LaHood, a 37-year-old assistant U.S. attorney in Las Vegas for the last four years and a former assistant state's attorney in Tazewell County who also is the son of U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, a powerful congressman from Peoria and a close ally of Hastert's.
The other known candidates also have central Illinois roots and impressive prosecutorial backgrounds but their political bloodlines aren't as rich.
John Michelich, a senior trial attorney in the criminal division at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., grew up in Auburn, in Sangamon County, graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, and got a law degree from Drake University in Des Moines. He was an assistant state's attorney and a first assistant state's attorney in Sangamon County for more than 10 years, handling major felony cases and overseeing a staff of 17 lawyers.
Since 1988 he's worked for the Department of Justice and has worked in the child exploitation and obscenity section, the narcotic and dangerous drug section, and the criminal fraud section. He also was sent to The Hague to assist the Justice Department in investigating and prosecuting international humanitarian law in the former Yugoslavia.
Michelich says he's handled more than 75 jury trials in the state and federal courts and has led federal grand jury investigations in more than 15 states. In 2002, former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft gave him his distinguished service award.
The fourth known candidate is Rodger Heaton, an assistant U.S. attorney in the central district of Illinois, who grew up in McLean County, attended the University of Illinois, earned a law degree from Indiana University and now lives in Rochester.
Heaton worked in the U.S. attorney's office in Springfield from 1990 to 2000, including a stint in the Office of the Independent Counsel, where he prosecuted former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and two business associates in a tax fraud case.
From 2001 to 2003, Heaton was a litigation partner at the Chicago law firm of Kirkland and Ellis. He returned to the U.S. attorney's office in Springfield more than two years ago to become chief of the office's civil division. In 1998, he received the Director's Award from the executive office of United State attorneys, awarded by former Attorney General Janet Reno. Heaton also has been an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois College of Law.
Experience may not be everything in choosing a U.S. attorney, but it ought to count more than political ties.