Libby's Prosecutor Returns to Work in Chicago

Having gained a conviction in Washington, D.C., in the trial of Lewis Libby, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald heads back to Chicago, his home base. What awaits him there?

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

After winning the conviction this week of Lewis Libby, the vice president's former chief of staff, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald said something that caught the ear of many people in Chicago.

Mr. PATRICK FITZGERALD (U.S. Attorney): We're all going back to our day jobs.

SIMON: And for Mr. Fitzgerald that means going back to Chicago, where he's U.S. Attorney for the northern district of Illinois. That may be good news for some government reformers, but it's not encouraging for some city and state political leaders who will now have Mr. Fitzgerald's undivided attention. NPR's David Schaper has that story.

DAVID SCHAPER: At Chicago's famed Billy Goat Tavern, you still hear this.

Unidentified Man: Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger.

SCHAPER: And at the 1970s-era Formica tables and vinyl covered bar stools, this dim and smoky joint is still the place where Chicago journalists get together for lunch or a stiff drink to share what they really think about the day's news and the people they cover. This week, the main topic is Fitzgerald's victory in the Scooter Libby trial.

Mr. JOHN KASS (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): He's probably stronger now than he was before.

SCHAPER: John Kass is a Chicago Tribune columnist.

Mr. KASS: When he said that we're all going back to our day jobs, as soon as I heard that I knew I had a column, because politicians here in Illinois heard that line and felt like they were crossing an icy river without waders. You know, a little shriveling and freezing going on there.

SCHAPER: In his column, Kass frequently takes on bipartisan political corruption in Illinois, Democrats and Republicans who he says join at the feeding trough of state and local government. Kass says the number and pace of corruption investigations have really picked up since Fitzgerald left the U.S. Attorney's office in New York six years ago to become Chicago's federal prosecutor.

Mr. KASS: It just keeps multiplying. Democrats, Republicans. People who were untouchable are no longer untouchable.

SCHAPER: If anyone doubted that before, Fitzgerald more than proved that point in the Libby trial, according to Jay Stewart of the nonpartisan Chicago-based Better Government Association.

Mr. JAY STEWART (Better Government Association): He believes the law applies to everybody. And just because you're a high government elected or appointed official, you don't get a pass.

SCHAPER: Some in Washington questioned whether Fitzgerald would be able to return to Chicago with his sterling reputation for integrity and independence intact, considering the intense media and political scrutiny on the trial. But those who know him say the pressure cooker of a case didn't change a prosecutor one friend once called Elliott Ness with a Harvard degree.

Ms. MARY JO WHITE (Former U.S. Attorney): I think he comes away from this case as Pat Fitzgerald, which is he is who he is.

SCHAPER: Mary Jo White is the former U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, Fitzgerald's former boss.

Ms. WHITE: He's, you know, very independent, does his job, does it fairly, does it exceptionally well, and I think he comes away, you know, from the Libby trial with that reputation totally intact, if not enhanced, despite some of the controversy surrounding the case.

SCHAPER: Many of Libby's supporters, including conservative bloggers and commentators, say Fitzgerald is a prosecutor run amok who overreached in charging Libby with perjury and obstruction while not bringing charges for the leak he was appointed to investigate. Some criminal defense lawyers in Chicago have in the past accused Fitzgerald of being overzealous, though none we talked to for this story would say so on air. Former Republican Illinois Governor Jim Thompson, who was Chicago's U.S. Attorney more than 30 years ago, and is a close friend of one of Fitzgerald's recent targets here, convicted former governor George Ryan, didn't want to comment on whether Fitzgerald was right to pursue the case against Libby.

Mr. JIM THOMPSON (Former Illinois Governor): Pat won his verdict so it means that he worked hard and persuaded the jury that the evidence was there.

SCHAPER: No one who knows him sees political aspirations in Fitzgerald. His supporters and his critics say he loves being a prosecutor. There will be no post-Libby trial rest for Fitzgerald. His office starts the corporate fraud trial of international media mogul Conrad Black next week. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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