Reporter-Turned-Prosecutor Heads High-Profile Case

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The investigation of Special Counsel Scott Bloch is one of the most sensitive, politically charged investigations in Washington, D.C. The man in charge of the case has an unusual background — for a federal prosecutor. Jim Mitzelfeld, who won a Pulitzer Prize at the Detroit News in 1994, once told his friends, "Being a prosecutor is a lot like being a reporter, except you have subpoena power."

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's report next on one of the most politically charged cases in Washington today. It's an investigation into Special Counsel Scott Bloch. He's the man who's supposed to make sure that federal employees are not mistreated. He's accused of mistreating his own employees and destroying evidence to cover his trail.

The man handling this investigation has a very unusual background for a federal prosecutor. His name is Jim Mitzelfeld, and he won a Pulitzer Prize as an investigative reporter 14 years ago. He's been in Washington less than a year. NPR's Ari Shapiro has this profile of Scott Bloch's nemesis.

ARI SHAPIRO: Ten years ago in an NPR interview, Jim Mitzelfeld described one of his favorite stories from when he was a reporter at the Detroit News. Michigan lawmakers went on a retreat in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Mitzelfeld followed to watch them. All the lawmakers knew Mitzelfeld, so he shaved his beard and wore sunglasses and a hat, and he took pictures.

Mr. JIM MITZELFELD (Federal Prosecutor): I think my favorite vision was of one of the most powerful lobbyists, who had been speaker of the house, putting sunscreen on the back of one of the lawmakers who was down there on vacation -the quintessential lube job.

SHAPIRO: Mitzelfeld was the kind of reporter who had a major impact on the world around him. He uncovered a massive government financial scandal in the '90s. Ten people were eventually convicted of crimes, including a member of the Michigan legislature. The state totally revamped its oversight scheme because of Mitzelfeld's stories. He won a Pulitzer for beat reporting. John Smietanka was the top federal prosecutor in Western Michigan at the time.

Mr. JOHN SMIETANKA (Former Federal Prosecutor, Western District of Michigan): The only reason I knew that we were getting somewhere in our investigation is that the agents would come in and say, well, you know what? We're only 30 days behind Mitzelfeld. We're only 25 days behind Mitzelfeld. We talked to a witness today, and Mitzelfeld was only there two weeks ago instead of a month ago.

So finally, we got to the point that I knew we were on top of it when Mitz had only been there the day before.

SHAPIRO: But Mitzelfeld became disillusioned with journalism. He explained in the NPR interview 10 years ago.

Mr. MITZELFELD: I would say to my editors, look, you know, there's two positions. Republicans say this. Democrats say this. I cannot literally describe what their positions in this amount of space. And they said just pick one. You know, and, I mean, that just sort of blew my mind. What do you mean pick one? I mean, I thought we were trying to give unbiased coverage.

SHAPIRO: So Mitzelfeld went to law school, and when he graduated, Judge David McKeague hired him as a law clerk. McKeague was then in Michigan, and now he's on the sixth circuit appeals court.

Judge DAVID McKEAGUE (Circuit Court Judge, United States Sixth Circuit): I had the distinction of having a law clerk that had an actual Pulitzer Prize sitting on the book shelf for a year.

SHAPIRO: Did he have a big head about it?

Judge McKEAGUE: No, not at all - very self-effacing guy.

SHAPIRO: Judge McKeague used to be the top lawyer for Michigan's Republican Party, and Mitzelfeld the reporter covered a lot of the issues McKeague worked on.

Judge McKEAGUE: We could always trust him. You knew that he was going to give you a fair break in any story that he was writing, and that certainly has carried forward in his career after he left journalism.

SHAPIRO: That's not to say Mitzelfeld shares McKeague's conservative views.

Judge McKEAGUE: I don't know what his political background would be. We love to discuss politics, but not from the standpoint of either what he was or what I was.

SHAPIRO: Mitzelfeld has worked for the government ever since law school. When he finished his clerkship, the Justice Department Honors Program gave Mitzelfeld a job in Washington. But after 9/11, he decided to move his family back to Michigan and work as a federal prosecutor in Detroit.

Last August, he returned to Washington and landed one of the most politically charged investigations of the day: Special Counsel Scott Bloch. Eric Freedman teaches journalism at Michigan State University, and he shared the Pulitzer with Mitzelfeld back in '94.

What did you think when you heard that he was the guy running the prosecution - the investigation, I should say, of Scott Bloch?

Professor ERIC FREEDMAN (Journalism, Michigan State University): Well, I wouldn't want to be a suspect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FREEDMAN: Jim is just so well organized and so thorough and so focused, and when we worked on stories together, he'd work till like midnight, one, two in the morning, and he's really good at team stuff. If you've done stories with other journalists, you know one sits at the keyboard, and the other one looks over the shoulder, and you kind of go back and forth in a collaborative way, and he was never territorial. His view always was that the final product is what matters.

SHAPIRO: Eric Freedman says his former reporting partner once described his new life this way: Being a prosecutor is a lot like being a reporter, except you have subpoena power. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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