• U.S.

Mr. Fitzgerald Goes To Washington

8 minute read
Viveca Novak and Amanda Ripley

Patrick Fitzgerald, 44, came to Washington not as a politician but as a prosecutor, the archetypical kind. When he announced his first indictment in the byzantine two-year-old CIA- leak investigation on Friday, he spoke for an hour, almost entirely without notes. It was easy to understand why juries like him. He sounded reasonable, and his plain respect for the law wasn’t marred by sanctimony. As if making an opening statement at trial, he laid out the facts clearly and carefully–and then gracefully elevated the rhetoric. “When a Vice President’s chief of staff is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice,” he said, “it does show the world that this is a country that takes its law seriously, that all citizens are bound by the law.” He used the word rules 13 times.

Naturally, reporters pleaded with Fitzgerald to reveal more: What would he do next? When would he be satisfied? Listening to each question, Fitzgerald leaned forward, chin tilted up, as if he were eager to help. Then, as he always has, he politely declined to elaborate, citing legal constraints. “You’re reading tea leaves. Don’t,” he advised. “I don’t draw a very good tea leaf.”

In his 13 years as a prosecutor in the Southern District of New York and four years as the U.S. Attorney in Chicago, Fitzgerald has said very little about his personal life or his politics. He is not the kind of lawyer who wants a lot of attention, unusual as that may be. But his record speaks for him. Fitzgerald has a long history of doing exactly as he did in this case. He works harder than God; he can be creative (sometimes controversially so) in his application of the law; and he does not tolerate being lied to. “He comes off as sincere because he is,” says New York attorney Joshua Dratel, who defended a man prosecuted by Fitzgerald in a 2001 terrorism case. “He very much believes in what he is doing.”

Like so many other Americans who work 100-hour weeks, Fitzgerald was born to immigrants. Patrick Sr. and Tillie Fitzgerald, both of County Clare, Ireland, raised four children in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Patrick Sr. was a doorman in Manhattan at a building on East 75th Street, just off Madison Avenue, and he rarely missed a day of work. In the summer, Fitzgerald worked as a doorman too, a few blocks south of his father. But from a young age, Fitzgerald was on track to join the crowds of Upper East Siders swishing past him. He attended Regis High School, a scholarship-only Jesuit academy for bright Catholic boys, where he was a star on the debate team. Then he moved to Massachusetts to study math and economics at Amherst, followed by law school at Harvard.

All the while, Fitzgerald approached every task, even his job as a janitor at Amherst, as if it were a mission. “I know this sounds like malarkey, but if he were not a prosecutor, he’d be a priest,” says Richard Phelan, a Chicago lawyer and friend of Fitzgerald’s. “He’s totally and completely dedicated.”

Still, it would be misleading to caricature Fitzgerald as a humorless social misfit. It’s true that he lacks certain domestic skills; for years, he famously piled reams of papers on the nonworking stove in his New York apartment. But he was also the one called on to roast departing colleagues and could always be counted on to join raucous beer drinking after a game of rugby or baseball.

Fitzgerald even turns vacations into occasions to test himself. Last summer in the Sierra Nevada in California, he wielded an ice ax to scale the treacherous slopes of Mount Whitney, at 14,491 ft. the highest peak in the lower 48 states. He has gone bungee jumping in New Zealand. He hang glides. All of which would be only mildly impressive if he weren’t also scared of heights, notes David Kelley, a close friend and former colleague in New York. “He sees the challenge and wants to take it on,” says Kelley.

In the 1990s, Fitzgerald put away Mafia brothers, Islamic terrorists and drug kingpins in New York, and in many cases, he pushed the envelope–invoking laws that other prosecutors wouldn’t have touched. After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Fitzgerald used a Civil War–era sedition statute to win the conviction of blind Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman. When the jury sentenced Abdel-Rahman to life, Fitzgerald still wasn’t satisfied. He became the first prosecutor to use a new antiterrorism law to get Abdel-Rahman imprisoned in isolation. (Later, Abdel-Rahman and his attorney would be caught on tape discussing how “evil” Fitzgerald was. “He’s like a crusader,” said lawyer Lynne Stewart.)

Fitzgerald eventually became the nation’s top terrorism prosecutor. After the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, he immersed himself in the case for three years, learning about Islam and picking up some Arabic in the process. In the end, the jury sentenced all four defendants to life in prison, though Fitzgerald had requested the death penalty for two of them. “He’s a bit of a moralist, an up-by-his-bootstraps Catholic boy with a strong sense of right and wrong,” says David Baugh, a Richmond, Va., defense lawyer who represented one of the defendants. “He’s like a Bing Crosby movie. He needs to get out more.”

In Chicago, a city that has a rich tradition of graft and influence peddling, Fitzgerald has continued to cause discomfort. A federal judge rebuked Fitzgerald in 2003 for pursuing “sensational” charges against Enaam Arnaout, who was head of an Islamic charity. Fitzgerald accused Arnaout of financing terrorism and having ties to al-Qaeda. The judge threw out a 101-page report that Fitzgerald had submitted in an effort to enter hearsay evidence against Arnaout. Ultimately, Fitzgerald dropped the terrorism charges, and Arnaout pleaded guilty to racketeering.

Fitzgerald is currently prosecuting former Illinois Governor George Ryan, a Republican, for corruption–using, among other things, a mail-fraud statute typically invoked in organized-crime cases. He has also gone after a slew of Mob bosses and members in connection with 18 murders, pursued city workers for allegedly running a kickback scheme and convicted a crony of Democratic Mayor Richard Daley’s for using a sham minority firm to get millions in public money–all while he was serving as special counsel in the CIA-leak case. Much of the work is done by his 160 Assistant U.S. Attorneys, but Fitzgerald, who is single and has no children, monitors the cases closely.

As befits a man who devotes most of his waking hours to his work, Fitzgerald takes any interference in his cases personally. Last year, in an ironic turn of events, a federal judge in Chicago ordered an investigation into whether a lawyer in Fitzgerald’s office violated grand-jury secrecy rules in a case involving health fraud. The lawyer had turned information over to attorneys for the family of a man who died after an operation. After a rancorous back-and-forth in which Fitzgerald tried to get the judge removed from the case, a federal appeals court found that the lawyer had received court permission to do what she did.

“Do I have zeal? Yes. I don’t pretend I don’t,” Fitzgerald told the Washington Post earlier this year. “If you’re not zealous, you shouldn’t have the job. Now, sometimes zealous becomes a code word for overzealous, and I don’t want to be overzealous. I hope I’m not.” But it can be a fine distinction. In 2002, the Chicago Tribune lauded the city’s new prosecutor in an editorial titled “A Breathtaking 76 Days.” The paper declared, “His crusade needs to go on and on and on.” This year, following his uncompromising pursuit of reporters’ phone records in another case, the Tribune ran another editorial. Its title: “Mr. Fitzgerald, Back Off.”

Part of the reason Fitzgerald is credible is that he rarely gets emotional in public. “Wrath does not drive him,” says Dean Polales, a Chicago attorney who worked under him for three years. There is one thing, though, that seems to pique Fitzgerald more than anything else. “He does hate being lied to,” says Pasquale D’Amuro, former head of the FBI’s New York field office. “He thinks that’s a very serious crime.” As a result of his terrorism prosecutions, Fitzgerald has cultivated a deep appreciation for state secrets and a good working relationship with the CIA. “He fully understands the apparatus of national security,” says Josh Berman, a lawyer who worked with him in the Southern District. In essence, to dissemble before a grand jury–in an investigation that Fitzgerald has poured his life into–is to make a mockery of everything he believes in.

“The truth is the engine of our judicial system,” he told reporters last week. “And if you compromise the truth, the whole process is lost.” It was as close as we’ll get to a slogan for Fitzgerald: If you compromise the truth, the whole process is lost. And if the process is lost, so is Patrick Fitzgerald.

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