Patrick Fitzgerald was the Paul Bunyan of U.S. attorneys in Chicago, his considerable accomplishments as the top federal prosecutor exceeded only by the mythology that grew around him.
Following in Fitzgerald’s footsteps, it was only to be expected that low-key Zachary Fardon would appear somehow lesser in comparison.
But to the extent that leads to a perception of Fardon’s performance as inadequate, I don’t think that’s either fair or accurate.
Fardon was a good U.S. attorney, whose short tenure was hampered on the front end by a manpower shortage inside the office and throughout by the turmoil on the streets outside relating to Chicago’s violence and how to police it.
Yet his thoughtful, principled leadership — exemplified by his “open letter” release Monday about Chicago’s violence problems — will leave its own mark on the city, especially if political leaders follow through on the Department of Justice report he helped drive into failings within the Chicago Police Department.
Fardon resigned his post Monday, three days after new Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked for the resignations of 46 U.S. attorneys appointed during Barack Obama’s presidency.
That makes it only natural to want to assess his tenure at this time, although it should never be overlooked that some of the major contributions of any U.S. attorney often don’t surface until a year or two into the administration of the successor.
As I’ve said in the past, the big, complicated federal investigations can take years to bring charges, which means there undoubtedly are more Fardon-inspired cases in the pipeline.
Still, it’s true that in his more than three years on the job Fardon mounted far fewer big-name trophies on the wall of the U.S. attorney’s office than did Fitzgerald in his nearly 11-year tenure.
Believe me, I’m taking nothing away from Fitzgerald, who did a great job for the citizens of the Northern District of Illinois by restoring the fear of “The G” to the state’s politicians. I wish we could clone him.
Newspapers measure U.S. attorneys by the headlines they generate, and Fitzgerald produced more and bigger headlines with his prosecutions of two Illinois governors and top city hall figures among others.
Defense attorneys, meanwhile, tend to judge U.S. attorney by how much business they generate as measured by individuals charged, and again, some say the volume of prosecutions brought by Fardon wasn’t up to snuff either.
But quality of prosecutions is not so easily measured, and prosecutions for street crime don’t grab the same headlines as crooked politicians, a frustration shared by Fitzgerald when he was U.S. attorney.
Other defense attorneys credit Fardon, regarded by everyone as a top-notch lawyer, for toning down the use of press conferences to pile bad publicity on criminal defendants. They also credit him with taking the defense viewpoint into consideration before bringing charges.
Fardon inherited the job at a very unique time when federal hiring constraints, coupled with normal attrition that saw some top prosecutors take other jobs following Fitzgerald’s departure, hamstrung the office.
As Fardon explained in his letter, “In the 2000s, the office had 172 federal lawyers. In 2012, sequestration hit and over the next two years we bled down to 127 lawyers. Under the current budget the office can afford about 158 lawyers.”
Fardon said the office still needs another 15 to 20 full-time federal prosecutors if it is expand gang and gun prosecutions, and though he didn’t specifically say so, to maintain its crucial role in pursuing public corruption.
Fardon’s most important legacy may be the many hires he did make and his efforts to bring those young prosecutors up to speed to be able to handle more sophisticated prosecutions.
The role of U.S. attorneys as a whole is overrated. Fardon was probably underrated.Tweets by @MarkBrownCST