Hastert case marks Fardon’s first big test

SHARE Hastert case marks Fardon’s first big test

When U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon announced criminal charges against a man once a few heartbeats away from the presidency last month, he didn’t summon TV cameras for a dramatic evening news conference.

Instead, Fardon’s office announced the jaw-dropping indictment of former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert — the most high-profile and arguably most significant criminal case filed at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse since the arrest of Rod Blagojevich — by news release.

Now, the nation will be watching Tuesday as Hastert appears in court for the first time since Fardon’s office filed the stunning charges. And one former federal prosecutor predicted that, “every argument . . . is going to be scrutinized and mulled over.”

Patrick Collins, another former federal prosecutor who worked with Fardon a decade ago to send former Gov. George Ryan to prison, said the man who became Chicago’s top fed in October 2013 is up to the task — but “self-promotion is not on his list” of objectives.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Zach will handle the spotlight with flying colors,” Collins, now a partner at Perkins Coie, said. “And I think the reason he will, is because he doesn’t seek the spotlight. But he certainly won’t shy away from the tough decisions that often will get the focus of the spotlight.”

Before becoming U.S. attorney, Fardon was best known for his work with Collins on the six-month Ryan trial and the prosecution of the former governor’s chief of staff, Scott Fawell. Between 2003 and 2006, Fardon also served as First Assistant U.S. attorney in the Middle District of Tennessee, where he was raised. He returned to Chicago to work on the Ryan trial.

That’s where he delivered 90 minutes of opening remarks without referring to notes.

In 2007, Fardon became a partner at Latham & Watkins LLP and chaired the litigation department in Chicago, specializing in white-collar crime defense, business litigation and internal investigations. He also represented a key figure in the investigation of former Gov. Blagojevich — lobbyist John Wyma.

Defense attorney Michael Ettinger called Fardon “low-key, brilliant and fair.”

“He knows what it takes to prove a case,” Ettinger said.

And Larry Beaumont, a former federal prosecutor who now works as a defense attorney, said he sought advice from Fardon on matters of ethics and law when the two worked together in the late 1990s.

“He counseled me on several difficult cases,” Beaumont said.

Fardon is not expected to personally handle the Hastert case in the courtroom, though. Rather, former federal prosecutor Jeff Cramer said the focus will be on the prosecutors in the room — just as it was when Fardon and Collins helped prosecute Ryan under the direction of former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.

“Zach has a tremendous and impressive cast of individuals around him,” Cramer, now head of the Chicago office of Kroll Inc., said. “He has some prosecutors who have been in the line of fire.”

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Steven Block and Carrie Hamilton are assigned to the case. Hamilton helped prosecute Blagojevich, and jurors credited her with closing the deal in his second trial. Block recently helped land a 40-year sentence for a cop-connected kidnapper involved in the killings of at least three people — including his best friend.

Ettinger called both prosecutors “excellent” and “very capable.” They will be watched closely as they lay out the case against the former House speaker. Hastert is charged with lying to the FBI and structuring $952,000 in bank withdrawals to avoid banks’ reporting requirements for transactions of more than $10,000.

Hastert allegedly made those withdrawals as he paid $1.7 million in hush money to a man to conceal sexual misconduct that occurred sometime between 1965 and 1981, according to his seven-page grand jury indictment and federal sources.

The final decisions in prosecuting the case will belong to Fardon, though, someone Cramer said is an example of Chicago’s “history of very good trial attorneys being in that position.”

“The Chicago office has been really fortunate,” Cramer said. “The last several U.S. attorneys have been extremely good.”

And Collins warned against underestimating Fardon because of his understated manner — or his decision not to hold a news conference to announce the indictment of a man believed to be the highest-ranking Illinois politician ever to be criminally charged.

“That’s just not how Zach rolls,” Collins said. “And I think the people of the district, and I think justice, is better served with a guy like Zach who’s in charge.”

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