WASHINGTON—While he was an undergraduate at Amherst College, Patrick Fitzgerald spent his summers as a doorman at luxury apartment buildings on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
He wasn't always treated well by the elite who lived there, and it made an impression on the future prosecutor. Fitzgerald isn't in awe of the rich and the powerful, friends say.
That trait is coming in handy. Fitzgerald's probe into who outed a CIA officer has led him inside the White House. Now, almost two years after he was tapped to lead the investigation, he appears poised to bring indictments in coming days, perhaps against some of the most influential players in Washington.
The relentlessness with which he's pursued the sensitive case comes as no surprise to friends and adversaries. They say it's vintage Fitzgerald.
A 44-year-old workaholic bachelor, with a quick wit and razor-sharp intellect, Fitzgerald is described as a born prosecutor.
Colleagues on the 1995 terrorism trial of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman recall in awestruck tones how Fitzgerald wrapped up the unwieldy nine-month case against the "Blind Sheik" and nine co-conspirators. Fitzgerald's summation lasted three days. Through it all he barely glanced at his notes.
"He just stood there for three days and looked the jury in the eye and wove everything together until it all made sense," said Andrew McCarthy, the lead prosecutor on the case. "It was one of the best summations in a criminal trial ever."
The jury convicted on charges of seditious conspiracy.
Fitzgerald's admirers say he's the real thing: an aggressive, apolitical prosecutor with unimpeachable integrity who'll follow the facts wherever they lead. As U.S. attorney in Chicago he's charged former Republican Gov. George Ryan with conspiracy and fraud. Ryan's trial is now under way. And Fitzgerald's office is investigating the administration of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, a Democrat.
Fitzgerald's strong-arm tactics also have drawn critics. A number of news organizations howled in protest when he jailed a New York Times reporter for refusing to testify about her source. Editorial pages accused Fitzgerald of launching an overzealous assault on the First Amendment.
The bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks called into question his aggressive investigations of a pair of Islamic charities in Chicago, saying the tactics raised "substantial civil liberties concerns."
"He has a very stark black and white view of the world: good and evil, right and wrong," said Chicago Democratic political consultant David Axelrod, who's worked for Daley. "There's a lot of gray in the world, but I don't think he sees it that way."
Fitzgerald was raised by Irish immigrant parents in Flatbush, Brooklyn. His father was a doorman who, it was rumored, never took a vacation. It was apparent early on that Fitzgerald was gifted. He won a scholarship to Regis, a prestigious Jesuit school in Manhattan. He excelled, but also mopped up the school's bathroom as a janitor to help earn pocket money.
Amherst College was next. He majored in math and economics and, at a school filled with intelligent students, he made it look easy, said his classmate Anthony Bouza, who's now a real estate lawyer in Los Angeles.
"He was this regular New York, Irish-Catholic guy," Bouza said. "A little bit shy, self-effacing, with a great New York wit."
Bouza said Fitzgerald, a Phi Beta Kappa, was "scary smart" and never broke a sweat at exam time. He was able to take the most complicated abstract concepts and make them understandable, Bouza said. His sport of choice was rugby, a bruising game capped off, more often than not, by a keg of beer.
He went on to Harvard Law School and a few years in private practice before finding his calling as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan. He rapidly made a name for himself putting mobsters such as the Gambino brothers behind bars before moving on to terrorism cases.
In addition to locking up the blind sheik, Fitzgerald prosecuted the African embassy-bombing cases—in which the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked in 1998—and drew up an indictment against Osama bin Laden long before most people had even heard of the al-Qaida leader. Bin Laden remains at large.
Fitzgerald was toiling away in New York in 2001 on the embassy bombing cases when he came to the attention of then-U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill. Fitzgerald, who's no relation to the prosecutor, was looking for an outsider to go to Chicago as U.S. attorney and clean up corruption in the state's political apparatus.
Sen. Fitzgerald said he called then-FBI Director Louis Freeh and asked him who the best assistant U.S. attorney was. Pat Fitzgerald, came the response. Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, gave the same answer.
Impressed, Sen. Fitzgerald had an aide call the prosecutor and ask him to apply for the post in Chicago. Such jobs are often patronage posts, and the prosecutor thought the aide was a friend playing a practical joke.
"Politicians in Illinois of both parties have never forgiven me for bringing Pat Fitzgerald to Chicago," said the former senator, who's retired from the Senate. "I think he is the best prosecutor working out there today and probably the only one who has the ability to solve the (leak) case."
Fitzgerald isn't thought to have any political ambitions, although his name is often mentioned as a possible replacement down the road for FBI Director Robert Mueller. Even his adversaries say politics doesn't appear to be playing any role in this most political of probes.
That's what Jim Comey had in mind when he selected him for the task.
He'd partnered with Fitzgerald on the Gambino case in New York and the two prosecutors became fast friends. Comey was the No. 2 at the Justice Department when Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the leak case because of ties to White House officials. Comey turned to his old friend and granted him broad authority as special counsel to find the leaker.
"He is an absolutely apolitical career prosecutor," Comey said in a Dec. 30, 2003, news conference.
Comey said his mandate to Fitzgerald was simple: "Follow the facts wherever they lead and do the right thing at all times."
Through a spokesman, the special counsel declined to be interviewed for this article. But he offered a glimpse of his philosophy on the day that New York Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail rather than reveal her sources.
"At a certain point, we have to yield to law because if we don't, we're lost," Fitzgerald told the judge.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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