Congressmen, aldermen and state lawmakers have all found themselves in the crosshairs of Chicago’s top federal prosecutor.
But the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago is still most notorious for having sent back-to-back Illinois governors to prison.
That’s likely why the state’s Democratic senators raised a red flag last week about the potential role of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in the search for former U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon’s successor. Now the downstate Republican in charge of that search, U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, is downplaying Rauner’s role while still acknowledging the value of the governor’s input.
However, it turns out Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has also spoken to the congressman about a replacement for Fardon, who stepped down last week amid a Trump administration purge of top prosecutors nationwide. Other politicians are likely to reach out to Shimkus, as well. And none of them are immune from federal prosecution.
So at the end of the day, Shimkus spokesman Jordan Haverly said any recommendation to President Donald Trump will be made by his boss, alone.
“It’s not going to be the governor,” Haverly said. “It’s not going to be the mayor. It’s not going to be anyone else. It’s going to be the congressman.”
Meanwhile, the man who led the search for Chicago’s U.S. attorney 16 years ago warns the process should remain as apolitical as possible.
“We don’t want politics playing a role, one way or another, in federal criminal prosecution,” ex-Sen. Peter Fitzgerald said.
U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth fired a shot at Shimkus last week, warning in a public letter he might abandon the bipartisan process used to pick previous U.S. attorneys. They also complained about the participation of Kathy Lydon, Rauner’s deputy chief of staff for federal affairs, in a January phone call about the process for making federal nominations.
Though their party is in the minority, the senators’ objections are significant because Senate tradition requires both senators of a given state to sign off on a federal nominee before that person will be considered by the judiciary committee.
“The governor of Illinois has no authority when it comes to choosing federal prosecutors and judges,” the senators wrote. “In fact, recent history suggests we should make every effort to avoid even an appearance of impropriety when it comes to the selection of federal prosecutors.”
But beyond alluding to the federal prosecutions of former Govs. George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, the senators pointed to no action by Lydon or Rauner that caused such a concern. There is no sign Rauner is under federal investigation.
Haverly has said Shimkus wants to lead a “bipartisan, collaborative and inclusive” search for a U.S. attorney who will “root out corruption and stop the violence in Chicago.” He said the congressman’s office asked Lydon to “lend her expertise” because she has been involved in a U.S. attorney search before, and he told the Chicago Sun-Times that Lydon is “not going to be intimately involved as this goes forward.”
But later, the congressman issued a separate statement praising the governor’s counsel.
“The governor has been an agent of change in Springfield, ushering in unprecedented ethics reform to state government,” Shimkus said in a statement. “I value his input, and I will continue to solicit advice from him and other state leaders as I work to make the best recommendations I can to President Trump.”
Rauner spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis said in a statement that, “the governor has made it clear we need a U.S. attorney of the utmost integrity who is focused on rooting out corruption and reducing violence.” Demertzis said Lydon was unavailable for an interview.
Shimkus’ first call about the U.S. attorney search was actually with Emanuel, according to Haverly, who said the mayor contacted the congressman in January and February. Emanuel’s office confirmed the men have spoken on the matter.
“Given the impact a U.S. attorney can have on public safety, you better believe the mayor reached out early and often to voice his opinion that should a change be made in the U.S. attorney’s office, he would like to see someone appointed who will use the power of the federal government to prosecute more dangerous gun offenders,” mayoral spokesman Adam Collins said in an email.
Haverly has said Shimkus plans to “listen to a lot of people.” That could be a contrast to the U.S. attorney search that brought Patrick Fitzgerald to town as Chicago’s top fed in 2001. Peter Fitzgerald, the former Republican senator who is not related to Patrick Fitzgerald, led that search but is now a banker in Virginia. He recalled this week he “was very determined that no one have any influence on the choice,” and “did the search on my own.” He said few among his own staff even knew who he was considering.
“You don’t know what ulterior motives any of these other people have,” Peter Fitzgerald said. “I wasn’t going to delegate my responsibility to someone else who might have a motive in favoring one candidate over the other.”
Then-Gov. Ryan never called him directly to sway the decision, Peter Fitzgerald said. Of course, he noted that Ryan was already “a known target of an FBI investigation at the time I was making the recommendation.”
Patrick Fitzgerald would spend 11 years in office before stepping down in 2012. But as U.S. attorney he first prosecuted Ryan, a Republican who would be sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison, and then Blagojevich, Ryan’s Democratic successor who is still serving a 14-year sentence.
Fardon followed Patrick Fitzgerald into the office, having been picked at the end of a search that saw Durbin collaborate with then-Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican. At the time, Democrat Pat Quinn was governor of Illinois. And he had just seen his two immediate predecessors hauled off to prison.
That’s why Quinn decided to stay “completely hands off” while the senators searched for a new U.S. attorney, according to Quinn spokesman William Morgan.
Morgan said in a statement that Quinn “did not think it was prudent to get involved in picking a new U.S. attorney.”