Updated 05/24/12 – 4:28 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald, who is stepping down from his post after nearly 11 years next month, said Thursday that he felt “blessed” to have served as the top prosecutor in northern Illinois.
Fitzgerald credited the team of prosecutors and federal agents he worked with over the past decade for the accomplishments he achieved in that time.
“If I had one year as U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of Illinois with that team, I would just be so blessed,” Fitzgerald said during a press conference at the Dirksen Federal Building on Thursday. “The words I would think about would be a dream, a treasure, or a gift.”
During that time, he successfully prosecuted dozens of high-profile cases, including the convictions of former governors Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan, media mogul Conrad Black, insurance broker Mickey Segal, notorious former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge, several top Chicago mob figures, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s top aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a number of top aides to former Mayor Richard M. Daley, and dozens of other prominent politicians, and terror suspects.
Fitzgerald said it was a strange feeling to address the media by himself, when he normally has a line of prosecutors, federal agents, and others behind him when he is discussing a federal case his office has been investigating.
“As you look today, there’s nobody back there, but that would actually be pretty misleading, because there are a lot of people behind me, who have been behind me the last 10 years, and they wouldn’t fit back there,” Fitzgerald said.
He said, over the years, people have come up to him in public to thank him for his work as U.S. Attorney, but he said the prosecutors in his office and agents at various federal law enforcement agencies deserve the credit more than he does.
“I’ve always felt very uncomfortable about people thanking me for the things I do. I’ve actually been in the shower and heard someone on the radio say the U.S. Attorney did something today, and I had no idea I had done that, because other people had done it,” Fitzgerald said. “When I’ve had the chance, I’ve tried to explain to people that I don’t do the work, other people do the work.”
Fitzgerald also offered a piece of advice for whoever is chosen as his successor.
“Treasure the great people that are in the office,” he said. “A large part of the job is to step back, try not to get in the way, and let people do their jobs.”
Fitzgerald, who was appointed the U.S. Attorney for the Northern district of Illinois in late 2001, had been working as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in New York at the time. He said, when he was first sworn in as a federal prosecutor in 1988, “I was just proud beyond belief, and couldn’t imagine that anything would top that.”
He was nominated for the U.S. Attorney’s position in Chicago by then-U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (no relation), who bucked political pressure to appoint a local attorney for the spot.
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Fitzgerald thanked the former senator for nominating him to lead the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago, saying, “I will forever owe him an incredible debt of gratitude.”
After 11 years in office, Fitzgerald knew that President Barack Obama – or whoever is in the White House next – could replace him at any time.
“Am I rushing out in the 11th year of my four-year term? That sort of tells you something. I’ve been squatting for seven years,” Fitzgerald joked. “But people have terms for a reason.”
In fact, during the last presidential election in 2008, Fitzgerald talked to FBI Chicago boss Robert Grant in 2008 about the possibility of not being reappointed when a new administration took over the White House.
“I asked him ‘What are you gonna do if they don’t reappoint you?’ and at the time, Pat said ‘I don’t really know. I’ve been a public servant, I enjoy public service. Whatever I do, if I have to leave public service, it’ll be to someplace where I can preserve my ability to get back into public service,’” Grant said.
According to Grant, Fitzgerald is “a public servant, through-and-through,” a comment echoed by Fitzgerald himself.
“I love public service, I don’t know what I’m doing next, but public service is in my blood, and I’d like to find a way to balance public service in whatever I do next and my family obligations,” Fitzgerald said.
Asked why he decided to step down, Fitzgerald said it wasn’t an easy choice to make, but he felt it was time for a change of leadership in the U.S. Attorney’s office.
“I know I’m 51. I’m not going to be here until I’m 65,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s important that there be change. … I think it’s healthy at a certain point for there to be change at the top.”
Fitzgerald said he has not yet decided what he will do next.
“I think it’s good for me to not worry about what I’m doing next,” Fitzgerald said. “I also think it’ll be healthy for me to decompress and sort things out this summer.”
While Fitzgerald didn’t completely rule out work as a defense attorney, he did hint that it wouldn’t be a likely choice.
“Can you imagine me as a defense attorney?” Fitzgerald said with a laugh. “I respect what defense attorneys do, but I don’t know what I’m going to do next, I really don’t. All I know is, there are things I’ll feel comfortable with, and things I won’t feel comfortable with, and I’ll sort that out. And I won’t do anything I don’t feel comfortable with, because that’s not me and I won’t be very good at it.”
The one job Fitzgerald did make clear he wouldn’t be comfortable with doing was running for elected office.
“I’m not wired to campaign for anything, or run for public office, period,” he said. “Whatever I do next, I will use my abilities as best I can.”
As he explained his decision, there were a few cracks in Fitzgerald’s well-known hard-charging façade, cracks Grant helped explore.
“We know about his pie habits, and his desires for pies, and oftentimes when he brings a pie over, he consumes half of it,” Grant said. “So he may bring it over for the team, but we always observe the fact that he’s consumed half of it during the course.”
Fitzgerald did mention at least one regret from his time in office: his comment on the day Rod Blagojevich was arrested, when he said the then-governor’s schemes “would make [Abraham] Lincoln roll over in his grave.”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Fitzgerald said with a chuckle. “In all seriousness, I could have had a colder shower, a little more sleep, and some decaf. Having said that, I did get grief over it, and what bothers me about that, frankly, is I don’t want it to overshadow what the agents did in that case.”
Picking Fitzgerald’s successor largely will be up to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, but U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk will also have input, as he could effectively block any nomination. It’s also possible Republicans could stall any appointment until after the November election, in hopes Mitt Romney would defeat President Barack Obama, and give Kirk the lead in picking a successor.