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Durbin, Duckworth escalate drive to prevent Biden from firing Chicago’s top federal prosecutor

The senators have written a letter to President Joe Biden, saying U.S. Attorney John Lausch “has served with professionalism and without partisanship, including in his handling of highly sensitive investigations.”

U.S. Attorney John Lausch is the top federal prosecutor in the Northern District of Illinois, which includes Chicago.
Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth are escalating their drive to retainJohn R. Lausch, Jr., U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, until a successor is confirmed.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times, Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

WASHINGTON — Illinois Democratic Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth have escalated their drive to retain U.S. Attorney John Lausch, telling President Joe Biden in a letter the public-corruption busting federal prosecutor needs to remain in office until his successor is chosen.

Durbin, the Senate Judiciary Committee chair, and Duckworth also disclosed in the Tuesday letter that White House Counsel Dana Remus was told last week “in direct conversations” about keeping Lausch in place until his replacement is confirmed. Still, Biden’s Justice Department asked U.S. attorneys nominated by ex-President Donald Trump to submit their resignations by Feb. 28.

Lausch had not resigned as of Wednesday, according to a spokesman. Meanwhile, the senators wrote in their letter that Lausch “has served with professionalism and without partisanship, including in his handling of highly sensitive investigations.”

“...We have made our position clear on Mr. Lausch’s retention both publicly and privately, including in direct conversations with the White House Counsel as recently as last week,” the senators wrote. “We reiterate today that John Lausch should be permitted to remain in place until the confirmation of his successor.”

A White House official later said, “This was an across-the-board transition, with only one exception in keeping a U.S. Attorney in place in their district, in line with how previous administrations addressed this issue.”

The issue for the senators is not over whether presidents can fire U.S. attorneys. They can. Durbin and Duckworth, well aware of the Illinois political climate and pending major public corruption cases against Democrats in the state, do not want to do anything to cast any doubt or cloud over federal investigations and prosecutions.

Trump conducted a similar purge early in his term — leading to Lausch’s confirmation in November 2017 as Chicago’s top fed. But in the more than three years that followed, Lausch managed to maintain the support of politicians of all stripes amid aggressive, ongoing public corruption investigations — a not insignificant feat in a hyper-partisan atmosphere.

The absence of politics from the U.S. attorney’s office is often what lends credibility to its work in a town otherwise consumed with it. Twenty years ago, then-Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, a Republican who did not come out of the Illinois GOP political establishment, led a search for a new U.S. attorney in Chicago that led to out-of-towner Patrick Fitzgerald — no relation to the senator. Peter Fitzgerald said he looked outside of Chicago to remove political influence from the process.

Patrick Fitzgerald is now remembered as a legendary crime fighter, first nominated by then-President George W. Bush but allowed to remain in office by then-President Barack Obama, a Chicagoan who understood Fitzgerald’s significance here.

Fitzgerald is now a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP. His replacement, Zachary Fardon, is a partner at King & Spalding. Neither sought political office after serving as Chicago’s top prosecutor.

Lausch has gone out of his way to avoid political commentary since replacing Fardon. Instead, he has helped maintain a fragile alliance of local and federal authorities in Chicago. That’s likely due in part to the Joliet native’s local roots. He also previously worked as a federal prosecutor along with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Though Lightfoot is an outspoken critic of Trump — the man who nominated Lausch — she has cited her decades-long relationship with Lausch as she cautiously agreed to strategies like the expansion last summer of “Operation Legend,” a controversial move by Trump that sent hundreds of federal agents to Chicago to help fight violent crime.

Now, the new chair of the Illinois Republican Party, Don Tracy, in one of his first public statements has said that “if (former House Speaker) Mike Madigan faces no consequences for his party’s corruption, he can now thank Joe Biden for protection.”

Madigan, recently dumped as Illinois House Speaker, remains the chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois. But he has been implicated by Lausch’s office in an ongoing bribery investigation — even earning the notorious moniker of “Public Official A” in court filings. He has not been charged with a crime and denies wrongdoing. Still, the rhetoric over Lausch’s departure threatens to damage public faith in the investigation.

Word that Biden would do away with Lausch triggered a political storm Tuesday in Illinois. The senators’ letter to Biden comes after they made a strong statement when news of the firings surfaced.

They wrote in their Tuesday letter that they endorsed Lausch’s nomination, despite his nomination by Trump, after a non-partisan screening committee reviewed his qualifications. They also wrote that Lausch “has served with professionalism and without partisanship, including in his handling of highly sensitive investigations.”

If Lausch were to leave office before his successor is confirmed by the Senate, the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago would likely be led on an interim basis by Lausch’s first assistant U.S. attorney, John Kocoras.