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U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald Shares Fun of Public Interest Work

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November 9, 2005

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the United States attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, shared a “deep, dirty secret” in his keynote speech during Public Interest Law Week at the School of Law. The man whose crime-fighting prosecutions have been all over the news in recent years, especially his recent indictment of a senior White House official, took the audience behind the scenes of his headline-making work to tell his secret to the Northwestern law students spilling into the walkways of Lincoln Hall. Believe it or not, he told them, public interest work is lots of fun.

For him, the work is not about being Mother Teresa, though he takes great satisfaction in a job that, he said, requires that you do the right thing every day. But few people realize, he said, how much fun doing the right thing can be.

The fun started for him with the launching of his prosecutorial career in New York 20 years ago. Within the first three years, he, as an assistant U.S. attorney in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, was working with the New York City Police Department on wiretaps and pursuing drug dealers and hit men in Manhattan. Four years into the job, he was conducting meetings in Sicily regarding organized crime. Ten years later, he was in Africa trying to determine whether he should bring charges against an alleged bomber, who Fitzgerald ultimately brought to America as a witness.

His introduction as a public interest lawyer by School of Law Dean David Van Zandt was a first, he admitted. Generally people think of public interest lawyers as attorneys who defend the indigent or the environment, he said, and he certainly would not have described himself that way 20 years ago. But today he clearly sees his job as advancing the public’s interest, whether defending particular citizens against violence and gangs or protecting society at large from terrorism.

He urged law school students who might not see a prosecutor’s job as public interest work to think again. He welcomed them all to the table, especially those who fear they would not be good prosecutors because of doubts about policies and differences in perspectives. 

“We welcome people who can see both sides,” he said. “The point is not to think in an old-fashioned 1950s black-and-white way about the job. The more diversity the better.”

To prove his point, he took the audience behind the scenes to indictment committee meetings. The process is intense, especially when Fitzgerald is trying to determine whether to seek the death penalty. At the indictment meetings, several lawyers and supervisors hash out the facts, arguments and policy reasons to determine whether to indict. In the give and take, defense as well as prosecution perspectives are well represented, he said. 

“In these meetings, I’ve learned that some of the best ‘defense’ attorneys are prosecutors in my office. Sometimes I am stunned by what goes on in the meetings.”

He offered only a quick response to a technical question about his most recent indictment, stemming from his high-profile investigation of the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s name to journalists. Appointed as special counsel in the Plame case, he cannot discuss many of the findings because of rules governing the investigation and because the case is still open. 

“The investigation of the Plame case, the First Amendment litigation that ensued and the indictment are all sure to hold prominent places in the history books,” Van Zandt said in his introduction of Fitzgerald.

As U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, Fitzgerald serves as the district’s top federal law enforcement official and manages a staff of approximately 300 employees. In 2001, he was nominated for the job by President George W. Bush and confirmed unanimously by the Senate.  

Ever since he has been making crime-fighting headlines in Chicago. He has provided leadership and played a personal role in many significant investigations involving terrorism financing, public corruption, corporate fraud and violent crime, including narcotics and gang prosecutions.

Early in his career, Fitzgerald built the first criminal indictment against the man who would become the world’s most hunted terrorist, Osama bin Laden. He also was responsible for convictions in a terrorism conspiracy case that included the 1993 World Trade Center bombing plot and the1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.