Aggressive prosecutors can make a big difference in a state as corrupt as Illinois.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's Chicago tenure had to end sometime. Nonetheless, the announcement Wednesday that he's stepping down from his post as the top federal prosecutor in the Northern District of Illinois is terrible news for Illinois residents.
It's not so much that the 51-year-old Fitzgerald is irreplaceable, it's who will replace him.
Will it be another prosecutorial bulldog in the Fitzgerald mold? Or a more passive, politically connected lawyer who will revert to the past practice of pursuing small and medium-sized fish while the really big ones are left free to pursue business as usual?
During Fitzgerald's 11-year tenure, lawyers in his office were best known for zealously pursuing political corruption cases, ranging from municipal government all the way to the governor's office. His office convicted top mobsters, top politicians and top white-collar criminals. It was such an amazing run that Fitzgerald helped restore confidence that at least some public officials were trying to do the right thing.
To understand how important Patrick Fitzgerald has been to Illinois, one must understand how it was that this New Yorker ended up in Chicago.
Maverick Republican U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, who was elected in 1998 after serving in the Legislature, was determined to strike a blow against the corrupt status quo. Sen. Fitzgerald said he was uncertain what approach to take until he read a biography of the late Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick. In it, he learned that Illinois was unable to strike a prosecutorial blow against Chicago mobster Al Capone until an out-of-state lawyer with no connection to the political status quo in Cook County was brought in to head the federal prosecutor's office.
Sen. Fitzgerald has said that was his inspiration to bring in another outsider, and he sought the opinions of many before settling on Patrick Fitzgerald (no relation).
The powers-that-be, ranging from now-imprisoned Gov. George Ryan to the associates of the now-imprisoned Gov. Rod Blagojevich, tried unsuccessfully to use their political clout to oust Fitzgerald from the U.S. attorney's post. Now the defenders of the corrupt status quo will use their influence to get a much tamer replacement.
The selection will be made by U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, a Springfield Democrat, and there's not much reason to believe he'll want to anger his fellow pols by naming another Fitzgerald.
Perhaps Durbin will surprise us. But he is plugged into the status quo of this determinedly corrupt state, and it's hard to believe he'll want to anger his fellow pols by choosing another aggressive prosecutor.