Patrick Fitzgerald is back.
With his dramatic arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on an assortment of corruption charges–including the allegation that Blagojevich wanted to sell the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama–Fitzgerald, the hard-charging U.S. attorney in Chicago, has returned to the national stage as a scourge of dishonest government. His last star turn was as the special counsel who successfully prosecuted Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, for having lied to FBI agents and a grand jury during the investigation of the leak that outed CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson.
Throughout that investigation, the no-nonsense Fitzgerald repeatedly insisted that the case was about a simple matter: whether Libby had lied. But he did note it had wider implications. When Fitzgerald presented his closing argument, he declared, “There is a cloud on the vice president.” He added: “And that cloud remains because this defendant obstructed justice.” Two weeks later, after winning a guilty verdict on four of five counts, Fitzgerald noted, “Mr. Libby had failed to remove that cloud….Sometimes when people tell the truth, clouds disappear. Sometimes they do not.” And when Bush commuted Libby’s sentence, ensuring that Libby would serve no prison time, Fitzgerald huffed, “It is fundamental to the rule of law that all citizens stand before the bar of justice as equals.”
His not-too-subtle point was that when it came to integrity, the Bush White House–or at least Cheney’s wing–was, well, cloudy. (The trial had revealed much about Cheney’s hard-edged political operation.)
The Libby case, for some, was a hard-to-follow affair, and conservatives and Republican allies of Libby and the Bush administration had rampaged against Fitzgerald and tried mightily to muddy up the episode. Thus, Fitzgerald’s implied indictment of the Bush crowd partially got lost in the middle of a partisan mud fight. With the Blagojevich case, Fitzgerald is once again championing honest government, but this time he appears to have a case less likely to get caught up in the distracting swirl of ideological attacks. After all, Blagojevich has few friends who will go on cable TV to blast Fitzgerald for being a run-amok prosecutor. There may even be Republicans who praise his pursuit of Blagojevich, a Democrat.
At a Tuesday press conference to discuss the Blagojevich complaint, Fitzgerald was again on a high horse–apparently justifiably. The complaint is a strong one, based on wiretapped conversation in which Blagojevich (dropping plenty of f-bombs) openly talked about how he could trade the Senate seat for campaign contributions, a Cabinet post, a job at a nonprofit or labor outfit, or a well-paying spot on a corporate board for his wife. The complaint also outlines other illegal pay-to-play schemes involving government contracts. In describing all this, Fitzgerald railed against the culture of corruption that has plagued Illinois.
He decried Blagojevich’s brazenness. Given that Blagojevich knew he was under investigation, the prosecutor said, “You might have thought in that environment pay-to-play wold slow down.” Instead, it sped up, Fitzgerald maintained. And Fitzgerald went beyond describing the case against Blagojevich to assert that this way of doing business in Illinois had to change. Criminal charges could help in this regard, he noted. But there needed to be more: participants in the system had to refuse and squeal. “When people are approached to pay to play,” Fitzgerald said, “first [they should] say no, and then report it.” He proclaimed that Illinois was facing a “moment of truth.”
Fitzgerald obviously hopes this case will do more than land the current governor in jail. He wants to drive reform throughout Illinois and Chicago. He is, of course, aiming high. His prosecution of Scooter Libby did discredit the Bush administration but it didn’t do much to transform how the Bush administration and Washington operate. Libby escaped full punishment for having lied. (And it remains possible that George W. Bush will pardon Libby in the last month of his presidency.) The Blagojevich case offers Fitzgerald another high-profile opportunity, and this time, Fitzgerald might have a better chance of nudging government toward functioning as it should: ethically, honestly, and not for profit.