When Chicago's U.S. attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald, announced corruption charges against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Tuesday, it was just the latest in a string of high-profile takedowns for the prosecutor.
In the past eight years, Fitzgerald has become one of the most well-known federal prosecutors in the country, handling cases against terrorists, mobsters, and — most notably — the vice president's chief of staff.
Of the more than 90 U.S. attorneys in the country, some are chosen for their political connections. Others are appointed as a reward for making donations to a campaign. Fitzgerald was chosen for his reputation as a prosecutor. He earned that reputation over 13 years as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York. One of his most significant cases there was the prosecution of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida figures for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Aitan Goelman, who is now a defense attorney in Washington, D.C., was a prosecutor in New York with Fitzgerald.
"If you are a criminal defendant or a criminal suspect, you would rather have pretty much anybody else than Pat Fitzgerald on your case," Goelman said. "He is very dogged. He is very organized. He learns his cases, so he has just an encyclopedic knowledge of the facts and the evidence, and he is a quick study."
When President Bush appointed Fitzgerald to lead the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago in 2001, Fitzgerald inherited a massive public corruption investigation. It led to the arrest of Illinois Gov. George Ryan.
Fitzgerald announced the charges against Ryan at a press conference much like the one he held Tuesday. "What we're alleging," Fitzgerald said, "is that basically the state of Illinois was for sale."
Patrick Collins was one of the lead prosecutors on the Ryan case. He says that after the indictment, Fitzgerald asked for a list of all the agents who'd been involved. Fitzgerald wanted to thank them each personally.
"For agents, it's a little bit like meeting Elvis," Collins said. "When folks got an 'atta boy' letter from Pat, it very quickly got framed and went up on the wall."
When Ryan was sentenced to prison in 2006, Fitzgerald again stood in front of the cameras and expressed a hope, saying "that somewhere out there, at some point, people would stop and think and look at what's happening and realize how horrible corruption is."
Fitzgerald concluded, "Maybe at some point it'll sink in, and this will stop."
Of course, corruption did not stop, and Fitzgerald's reputation grew.
Investigating The Plame Leak
In 2005, the Justice Department was investigating which Bush administration official leaked the identity of a CIA agent. Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself, so oversight of the case went to Jim Comey — the deputy attorney general and a good friend of Fitzgerald.
Comey announced that he had delegated to Fitzgerald "all the approval authorities that will be necessary to ensure that he has the tools to conduct a completely independent investigation." Comey said Fitzgerald would not have "to come back to me or anybody else at the Justice Department for approvals."
Some people have argued Fitzgerald was given too much power. They say he went overboard when New York Times reporter Judith Miller was imprisoned for refusing to reveal a source, and when he eventually charged Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, with lying under oath.
Fitzgerald defended his actions. At a press conference announcing the Libby indictment, he said the truth is the engine of the judicial system.
"Any notion that anyone might have that there is a different standard for a high official is upside down," Fitzgerald said. "If these facts are true, if we were to walk away from this and not charge obstruction of justice and perjury, we might as well just hand in our jobs."
Libby was eventually convicted on all but one of the five counts.
The Lawyer's Background
Fitzgerald has never sought out the limelight. He almost never agrees to interview requests. He did make one exception last year, for a game show for the NPR program Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!.
When asked why he agreed to be on the show, Fitzgerald replied, "Literally, I was trying to get tickets to the show."
On the program, Fitzgerald talked about growing up in Flatbush in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he worked as a janitor and a doorman. He described it as "an interesting experience."
"It was fun," he said, "but you had people calling up on the Fourth of July complaining about fireworks, asking you to stop them. And you said yes, and you hung up."
New presidents traditionally replace U.S. attorneys with their own appointees, but President-elect Obama and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin have both suggested that they will probably ask Fitzgerald to remain in the job.