Once he assumes office, President-elect Barack Obama will face a severe “trial by fire” over whether to fire U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald and other U.S. attorneys, following Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s arrest Tuesday for allegedly offering to sell Obama’s vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder.
Ordinarily, legal and political experts say, an incoming president has broad authority to change both the Cabinet and the U.S. attorneys who serve at his request. But with unanswered questions swirling over the degree of interaction Obama's team has had with Blagojevich, and the alarming level of Illinois corruption exposed by the probe, any move to fire Fitzgerald would be highly controversial as a possible conflict of interest.
“There are enough connections between the worlds of Blagojevich and Obama that the whole thing has the potential to grow beyond a colorful Chicago tale of corruption to entangle members of the presidential transition team, to test Obama’s carefully cultivated reformist image, and to distract the president-elect just as he is preparing to take office,” Time.com reported Wednesday.
Many of the concerns revolve around a statement Obama made Tuesday afternoon, which ultimately raised more questions than it answered.
"I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so we were not -- I was not aware of what was happening," Obama said, leaving open the possibility that his staff did have contact with Blagojevich. "And as I said, it's a sad day for Illinois. Beyond that, I don't think it's appropriate to comment."
Obama’s statement evoked concern among the mainstream media that it was too tepid to quell the rising hubbub. “I think it was a very passive statement by Obama yesterday. I don’t think it was enough,” NBC political director Chuck Todd told MSNBC viewers on Wednesday morning.
Concerns over what Obama’s staff knew regarding the blatant solicitation of bribes, and when they knew it, only deepened Wednesday morning as Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod recanted a November statement that Obama did meet with Blagojevich that month.
Wednesday afternoon, apparently in response to media rumblings, Obama commented again, saying via a spokesman that Blagojevich should step down as Illinois governor. Obama has not been considered particularly close to Blagojevich, but did voice strong support for him during his 2006 reelection campaign.
Citing the equivocal statements coming out of the Obama camp, Heritage fellow and legal scholar Robert Alt tells Newsmax: “You already have the whiff of cover-up in the air” inside the Beltway.
“If these sorts of stories continue,” Alt says, “and it starts to look like he’s covering up contacts with Blagojevich, if he then sacks Fitzgerald, that would look very bad indeed.”
In his news conference, Fitzgerald went out of his way to avoid implicating the Obama team, stating “there’s no reference in the complaint to any conversation involving the president-elect or indicating that the president-elect was aware of it.”
Alt, the deputy director of the Center for Legal and Judicial studies at Heritage, says he sees no indication in the criminal complaint against Blagojevich of any improper involvement on the part of Obama’s representatives – but he adds Obama must now tread very carefully.
“It will be a baptism by fire,” Alt tells Newsmax. “Any time there is an investigation touching on the president or close presidential allies, the sensitivity of hiring and firing the prosecutors becomes a high concern. It’s been previously said there’s not much time for on-the-job training for the presidency. And on the issue of U.S. attorneys, he’ll have to make some tough calls right away.”
Republican leaders are already challenging Obama to pledge that after he becomes president on Jan. 20, he will keep Fitzgerald in office.
“What he should do tomorrow is say, ‘Patrick Fitzgerald has a job and can have it for as long as he wants,’” the state Republican chairman of Illinois, Andy McKenna, told reporters. “Some have wondered if Barack Obama would keep Fitzgerald. It would be great if he confirms that he plans to.”
That Fitzgerald suddenly sees Republicans lining up to defend him is profoundly ironic, given that both prominent Republicans and Democrats have found themselves in his investigatory crosshairs over the years.
A former rugby player, Fitzgerald once told a reporter he’d left plenty of blood on the field because “that was the whole point.” No one has ever doubted Fitzgerald, 47, plays for keeps.
Born into a working-class Brooklyn family, Fitzgerald’s father of worked as a doorman in Manhattan. The future scourge of corrupt politicians attended Amherst, and after earning a law degree from Harvard University practiced civil law before becoming an assistant U.S. attorney in New York in 1988. There, Fitzgerald made his reputation prosecuting terrorists like Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric who sought to bomb city landmarks. He also tried four men accused of bombing the East African embassy.
As Fitzgerald was demonstrating his prosecutorial chops, a maverick Illinois senator named Peter Fitzgerald – no relation – was looking for a U.S. attorney who would clean up the state’s infamously twisted politics. According to The Washington Post, Sen. Fitzgerald called former FBI Director Louis Freeh and asked, “Who’s the best assistant U.S. attorney you know of in the country?”
Freeh didn't hesitate: “Patrick Fitzgerald in the Southern District of New York.”
The senator then called the head of the New York office, asked the same question, and got the same answer: Patrick Fitzgerald.
That was when the senator recruited his namesake to be U.S. attorney in Chicago, and the rest is history -- bitter history for those Fitzgerald has caught trying to scam the public.
Fitzgerald’s delicious gift for offending the rich and powerful on both sides of America’s partisan divide was never more evident than in the Valerie Plame Wilson case. On the one hand, Republicans were troubled that Fitzgerald decided to prosecute I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, for perjury charges that had little or nothing to do with the concerns that originally triggered the investigation -- namely, that a Bush administration official may have broken the law by leaking the identity of Plame, a CIA operations officer, to columnist Robert Novak. Libby was convicted, but President Bush commuted his sentence in July 2007.
During his investigation, Fitzgerald also was targeted by the left and The New York Times, which pounded away at Fitzgerald in its editorial pages, stating that “in his zeal to compel reporters to disclose their sources, Mr. Fitzgerald lost sight of the bigger picture.”
Among Fitzgerald’s other high-profile prosecutions: The 2006 conviction of GOP Illinois Gov. George Ryan, for steering state contracts in return for payoffs.
Having survived repeated prosecutorial run-ins with powerful people bent on breaking the law, now the question is whether Fitzgerald will survive the transition that brings the once-junior senator of Illinois to the White House. Ousting Fitzgerald could raise serious questions about the sincerity of Obama’s commitment to do away with old-school politics.
In September, the former senator who recruited Fitzgerald warned his protégé’s days might well be numbered once Obama moves into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“My guess is if Senator Obama got elected, one of the first things that would happen is that they would remove Patrick Fitzgerald in Chicago,” the former senator told WIND’s John & Cisco In The Morning show. “And he’d have pressure to do so from all sorts of Daley administration people.”
Bill P. Marshall, a deputy counsel in Bill Clinton’s White House, tells Newsmax that it is rare for U.S. Attorneys to stay on after a shift in power.
Obama’s main task, Marshall says, is “returning some credibility to the Justice Department, but the point is if [Obama] keeps him on, that is the exception rather than the rule.”
Firing Fitzgerald could cause Obama more trouble than it’s worth. The nightmare scenario for Obama would be if the Blagojevich investigation evolves into a smoldering, enduring controversy along the lines of the Whitewater scandal, which dogged and distracted the presidency of former President Bill Clinton.
For now, that appears to most observers rather unlikely. But given the president-elect’s admission of what he described as “boneheaded” involvement in a real estate deal with top Blagojevich fund-raiser Tony Rezko, questions are likely to linger.
And then there is Illinois’ daunting reputation for political corruption.
Law professor James Lindgren, a Chicago-area law professor at Northwestern University, tells Newsmax: “There is enough corruption in Illinois so that all it takes is someone who is serious about finding it to uncover it. If a U.S. attorney is not finding corruption in Illinois, they’re not seriously looking for it.”
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