PATRICK FITZGERALD BUILT HIS CAREER ON AN OBSESSIVE, FEARLESS PURSUIT OF POWERFUL FOES
PATRICK FITZGERALD BUILT HIS CAREER ON AN OBSESSIVE, FEARLESS PURSUIT OF POWERFUL FOES • BY CHARLIE GILLIS
One of the most illuminating stories about patrick Fitzgerald involves neither mobsters nor terrorists nor while-collar malefactors, but a forlorn cat he once kept in his Brooklyn apartment. As a workaholic prosecutor in New York City back in the 1980s, Fitzgerald spent long hours preparing cases against terrorists and gangsters, often sleeping at the office while the cat pined away at his spartan flat across the East River. Colleagues implored him on the animal’s behalf—was love and a bit of food too much to give? But their pleas fell on deaf ears.
So they settled on methods a mob-buster would understand: someone in the office abducted the cat, and began sending its owner photos of it in a variety of harrowing circumstances—dangling from the Brooklyn Bridge, or with a toy gun to its head. After a few frightening snapshots, the message finally got through. Fitzgerald found the cat a home on a farm.
If there’s meaning in this anecdote for Conrad Black, it is that he can expect less consideration than the cat. “Prosecutor’s prosecutor” is a phrase that arises time and again in conversations about the man who signed
the Black indictments, usually to describe his obsessive work habits, but often to capture his fervid sense of mission. And while the 46year-old’s personal circumstances have improved—he now lives in a posh house in downtown Chicago and reportedly has a serious girlfriend for the first time—his tireless pursuit of his unlucky targets has not. “I remember getting an email from him at four in the morning,” says William Mate ja, who worked alongside Fitzgerald for several years and helped prepare the brief against Black. “You don’t see that from many U.S. attorneys.”
Nor has success diverted him from a vocation that he seems to treat as a calling. Fitzgerald fits into a long tradition of white-stetsoned American lawmen whose reputations outgrew their offices, from Eliot Ness to Eliot Spitzer. But he also regards prosecuting as
an end unto itself, and any suspect holding out hope that Fitzgerald will answer the siren call of politics, or take the big money from some private sector firm, will likely be disappointed, says Mateja. “This is a man who really seems to enjoy what he’s doing.”
The son of a Manhattan doorman, Fitzgerald showed an early flair for the state’s side of a criminal proceeding. After attending Harvard Law School, he honed his skills co-prosecuting drug traffickers and gangsters like John Gotti, the so-called “Dapper Don” who in the 1980s headed New York’s infamous Gambino crime family. In 1994, he led his own successful case against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and 11 others in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, an accomplishment
that led to his appointment as chief counsel on prosecutions stemming from the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
These cases, along with Fitzgerald’s renowned work ethic, effectively cast him as a sort of prosecutorial fireman—a man you could throw at the toughest, most politically fraught cases with a reasonable hope of success. So when Republican Senator Peter Fitz-
gerald (no relation) went looking for someone to tackle a rising epidemic of graft and political corruption in his home state, he found his candidate in, of all places, Manhattan. Patrick Fitzgerald was confirmed as assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois in the fall of 2001, and wasted no time getting to work. Using plea bargains to turn progressively more powerful witnesses to state’s evidence, he eventually exposed a web of bribery and political gift-giving throughout the state that led to the office of then-governor George Ryan. The investigation produced more than 60 conspiracy, fraud and racketeering charges, including 18 counts that stuck on Ryan himself, who was sentenced last September to 6 Vz years in prison.
The Black prosecution is another opportunity to demonstrate his skills on the legal issue du jour. In the wake of the corporate fraud debacles at Enron and WorldCom, the Bush administration assembled a task force to crack down on white-collar crime, and Fitzgerald was on it. The scandal surrounding Black’s Chicago-based company wasn’t the only one to surface in their territory, recalls Robert Kent, a prosecutor who headed up the Black case until he left for a private firm last September. But the tens of millions of dollars at stake—not to mention the inimitable character of Black—made it unique. “It was certainly the first case I’d ever had where the defendant was a member of the House of Lords,” he says.
Their task was made easier by a detailed investigation commissioned by Hollinger International’s board of directors, which formed a kind of road map of main allegations against the newspaper magnate and his associates. Working from those findings, Fitzgerald and Kent employed his time-tested
method of rolling major players in the alleged scheme, the most important of whom is Black’s long-time business partner, David Radler. The fate of the case against Black hangs largely on the nature and quality of Radler’s testimony.
In the meantime, the proceedings have provided glimpses of Fitzgerald’s less savoury tendencies—not least his propensity to hog the limelight at the expense of loyal and equally dedicated underlings. Fitzgerald, in fact, will not be the one leading evidence at Black’s trial; that will fall to a 37-year-old prosecutor named Eric Sussman, who is bestknown in Chicago for prosecuting a local meat-packing company that allowed rats to feast on products in a warehouse two years ago. Sussman has mostly taken a back seat to his boss on the Black case, occupying the
background at news conferences and leaving the verbal roundhouses to Fitzgerald. But Kent describes him as a talented lawyer, and notes that he has spent a lot more more time on the case than Fitzgerald. “He’s a very highly regarded, experienced trial attorney and I would say he’s very good in court,” he says. “The fact [Fitzgerald’s] name is typewritten on the pleadings shouldn’t lead people in Canada to think he’s working on the case day to day.” (Neither Sussman nor the three other lawyers on the Black prosecution team were doing pre-trial interviews.)
Then there’s Fitzgerald’s enthusiasm for tarring a suspect’s reputation before he ever sees a courtroom—a strategy Black’s lawyers have protested bitterly. When he announced the charges against Black in November 2005, Fitzgerald finger-wagged so confidently a casual observer might have thought the newspaper magnate was already wearing prison oranges. Black and his associates “made it their job to steal and conceal,” Fitzgerald said, adding:
“Officers and directors of publicly traded companies who steer shareholders’ money into their pockets should not lie to the board of directors to get permission to do so.”
Other critics question Fitzgerald’s decision to charge Black under racketeering laws intended for mobsters—a move that seems intended for public rather than court consumption. “I’m convinced the government charges [under racketeering legislation] if, for no other reason, than to taint the jury pool,” says Douglas McNabb, a criminal defence attorney based in Washington who has followed Fitzgerald’s prosecutions. “They want to suggest that this is a gangster sitting here at the defence table.”
The good news for Black—if there is any— is that the most feared prosecutor in America won’t be in the courtroom when Judge Amy
St. Eve opens proceedings this month. So quickly had Fitzgerald’s star risen in the wake of the Rahman and Ryan prosecutions that in December 2003, the White House appointed him special counsel in the investigation of the Valerie Píame affair—a case that has captivated the national press corps and will surely eclipse the trial in Chicago. While Sussman and his team are laying out the case against Black, Fitzgerald will carry on what has proven a difficult prosecution of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former chief of staff of U.S. VicePresident Dick Cheney who
is accused of outing Píame as a CIA operative. (In an all-too-familiar pattern for veteran prosecutors, witness after witness at the trial has suffered bouts of memory loss on the stand.)
That might not sound like much of a silver lining. But from Black’s point of view, the man’s absence may be nothing short of a godsend. Fitzgerald has earned iconic status in the Windy City, where his reputation is as familiar as the sight of his angular form jogging on the footpath along Lake Michigan in the early morning. Jay Stewart, a Chicagobased anti-corruption activist, believes Fitzgerald speaks to Chicagoans’ faith that someone in public life cannot be bought: “He really is the last Boy Scout.” That’s not to say a jury of 12 citizens would be incapable of hearing the case for the defence on its own merits. But the believability factor looms large in United States vs. Black, and in a contest of credibility, six years of good deeds is awfully hard to top. M
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