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Durbin, Duckworth to Biden: Do not fire top Chicago federal prosecutor John Lausch

The Senate Judiciary Committee chair and his fellow Democratic senator from Illinois say they weren’t consulted by the president and don’t want the U.S. attorney to step down.

Illinois Democratic Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth do not want President Joe Biden to ask U.S. Attorney John R. Lausch Jr., to resign at this time.
Illinois Democratic Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth do not want President Joe Biden to ask U.S. Attorney John R. Lausch Jr., to resign at this time.
Sun-Times file photo

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden triggered a political storm in Illinois on Tuesday, uniting the Democratic senators, four House GOP members and the Illinois Republican Party in protesting his move to fire Chicago-based U.S. Attorney John Lausch while he is overseeing public corruption probes and prosecutions of top Democrats in the state.

Sen. Dick Durbin, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who Biden considered as his vice presidential pick, said they were not consulted about the move and do not want Lausch to step down at this time.

On Feb. 22 and 23, Durbin will preside over the confirmation hearing of Merrick Garland, the Lincolnwood-raised federal appeals court judge who is Biden’s choice for attorney general, with a committee vote set for March 1. One of Garland’s missions will be to reverse ex-President Donald Trump’s politicization of the Justice Department.

U.S. attorneys are nominated by a president and must be confirmed by the Senate. Presidents have the power to fire U.S. attorneys.

Lausch and all but two U.S. attorneys appointed by Trump who have not yet moved on were asked to submit resignations by Feb. 28 in a Tuesday conference call with Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at her Tuesday briefing that requesting U.S. attorneys to resign at the start of a new presidency has been “commonplace among previous administrations, and we look forward to working with the Senate to swiftly fill these openings in the coming weeks. The president has also made clear he wants to restore the independence of the Department of Justice and to ensure it remains free of any undue political influence.”

What is not as commonplace is the backstory when it comes to the Chicago spot: In a Senate defined by partisanship, Trump, Durbin and Duckworth supported Lausch. He was confirmed on a voice vote for a four-year term on Nov. 9, 2017.

Lausch managed a somewhat significant feat in the last three years, maintaining the support of Illinois’ Democratic senators while serving as the Justice Department’s top prosecutor in Chicago under a Republican administration that enjoyed little popularity in the city.

A series of long-running public corruption investigations, most dealing with Democrats, went public under Lausch’s tenure. They led to the racketeering indictment in May 2019 of Ald. Edward M. Burke, as well as the bribery charges leveled last year against ComEd and four members of then-House Speaker Michael Madigan’s inner circle. Though the ComEd case implicated Madigan, he has not been charged with a crime and denies wrongdoing.

Court records show the origins of those cases date back to before Lausch took over.

Other elected officials to face criminal charges while Lausch served as Chicago’s top prosecutor include state Sen. Thomas Cullerton, former Sen. Terry Link, the late former Sen. Martin Sandoval, former state Rep. Luis Arroyo, former Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski and Crestwood Mayor Louis Presta.

In November, the Sun-Times reported Durbin and Duckworth said they had “confidence” in Lausch and wanted him to remain on the job.

In a statement, Durbin and Duckworth said Lausch should not be terminated immediately.

“While we agree with the Biden administration’s criminal justice agenda, we are disappointed with the decision to terminate U.S. Attorney Lausch without consulting us. In 2017, our nonpartisan screening committee gave its support for Mr. Lausch to serve in this position, and the Senate confirmed him unanimously.

“While the president has the right to remove U.S. attorneys, there is precedent for U.S. attorneys in the Northern District of Illinois to remain in office to conclude sensitive investigations. We believe Mr. Lausch should be permitted to continue in his position until his successor is confirmed by the Senate, and we urge the Biden administration to allow him to do so.”

Four of the five Illinois House Republicans — Adam Kinzinger, Darin LaHood, Rodney Davis and Mary Miller — said in a statement Biden should not fire Lausch and U.S. Attorney John Milhiser of the Springfield-based Central District of Illinois until their replacements are confirmed.

“While U.S. attorneys ultimately serve at the pleasure of the president, we believe it would be reckless and irresponsible for President Biden to fire U.S. Attorneys Lausch and Milhiser without successors nominated and confirmed by the U.S. Senate,” they said.

Milhiser recently announced a criminal indictment against former state Sen. Sam McCann.

“There is precedent for allowing a U.S. attorney to remain in office until successors are confirmed, and we strongly believe both should be allowed to do so,” the Republicans said.

Lausch’s departure provided a fertile issue for the new chair of the Illinois Republican Party Don Tracy, elected Saturday. Madigan, dumped as speaker, remains chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois.

Tracy in a statement applauded Lausch for “dismantling the corrupt Democratic Machine one crony at a time.”

Said Tracy, “Joe Biden cares more about settling scores with Trump than he does standing up for the people of Illinois who desperately want a government that works for them — not for politicians. If Mike Madigan faces no consequences for his party’s corruption, he can now thank Joe Biden for protection.”