Category: Archive

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the Irish Echo’s Person of the year

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

He has been at the heart of some of the most significant court actions take on behalf of the United States and its 300 million people.
And all the while he has exemplified the very best that the Irish have long offered to the land that is now home to the greatest part of the worldwide Irish Diaspora.
Fitzgerald was born December 22, 1960 in Brooklyn, New York, son of the late Patrick Fitzgerald Sr. and Tillie Fitzgerald, both of whom had immigrated to the United States from County Clare.
Fitzgerald was educated at Regis High School, Amherst College and Harvard Law School. His career in law was going to be never less than stellar but, as it turned out, it would also be played out in the full glare pf media and public scrutiny.
Fitzgerald’s name began to appear prominently in the press when he emerged as a pivotal figure in the prosecution of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment after the investigation into the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
His reputation was already well established when as U.S. Attorney for the northern district of Illinois, Fitzgerald was recalled to duty in Washington in 2005 to head the investigation into the leaking of the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Within a short time of taking the helm, Fitzgerald announced that, as a result of his investigations, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, had been indicted on five counts by a grand jury.
Libby resigned from his White House posts on the same day as the indictment was delivered. Libby was later convicted and sentenced, though his prison term was later commuted by President Bush.
Fitzgerald’s leading role in the case followed journalist Robert Novak’s revelation that Valerie Plame was as a CIA employee. Apparently unbeknownst to Novak, Plame was undercover.
It is a criminal offense to expose the identity of a covert CIA agent under certain circumstances. The CIA asked the Justice Department to investigate who had leaked Plame’s name to Novak, and that, eventually, led to Fitzgerald’s appointment as Special Prosecutor in the case.
The indictment of Libby was, and remains, the high water mark in a career that had seen Fitzgerald involved in numerous major cases, both before and since his appointment as United States attorney in northern Illinois shortly before Sept. 11, 2001.
Fitzgerald’s most recent work has led him into the labyrinthine world of Chicago politics, where he successfully pursued former Illinois governor George Ryan and an associate of the Windy City’s mayor, Richard Daley.
Retired Illinois senator Peter Fitzgerald, who is no relation to the prosecutor, told the Washington Post in 2005 about the process by which he came to recommend Fitzgerald to the White House for appointment as the U.S. Attorney in Chicago:
“I called [FBI director] Louis Freeh and said ‘who’s the best U.S. attorney you know of in the country?’ He said, ‘Patrick Fitzgerald in the Southern District of New York.'”
When the then-senator called the head of the bureau’s New York office, Mary Jo White, he received the same answer.
There have been critics of Fitzgerald’s work of course and that is no surprise given its nature and prominence. A lawyer who represented one of the defendants in a trial over the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania criticized Fitzgerald’s purportedly black-and-white worldview to Time magazine:
“He’s a bit of a moralist, an up-by-his-bootstraps Catholic boy with a strong sense of right and wrong,” David Baugh said. “He’s like a Bing Crosby movie. He needs to get out more.”
In the controversy surrounding the jailing of the New York Times’ Judith Miller, Fitzgerald also found himself regularly in the crosshairs of the Times’ editorialists and columnists.
In September 2004, an op-ed column by William Safire excoriated Fitzgerald for “his campaign to undermine the tradition of protecting the confidentiality of a journalist’s sources” and for “harassing the Times’s intrepid Judith Miller.”
While it is true that Fitzgerald’s quest to get testimony from Miller and other journalists including Time’s Matthew Cooper and NBC News’ Tim Russert did not win him many friends in the Fourth Estate, Fitzgerald could later argue with some persuasiveness that their testimony played a crucial role in bringing his investigation to a point where charges could be leveled against Libby.
Fitzgerald’s rise to the top of the legal world was rapid, but not easy. His father worked as a doorman on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, apparently never taking a day off.
His son’s intelligence was obvious from an early age; Patrick Jr. won a scholarship to the Jesuit-run Regis High School. He would step into his father’s shoes in subsequent years working as a doorman during his summer vacations from Amherst College.
“I’m very indebted to my parents,” Fitzgerald once told the Washington Post. “They were very hardworking, straight, decent people. The values we grew up with were straight-ahead. We didn’t grow up in a household where people were anything but direct. I’m hoping that if you’re a straight-shooter in the world, that’s not that remarkable.”
Fitzgerald’s work ethic was conspicuous even at Amherst and, later, at Harvard Law School, where he also showed the passion for rugby that continued through much of his twenties. His fondness for the sport, and his sociability — despite his workaholic lifestyle – he is reputed to enjoy the occasional drinking night out, and to have a keen sense of humor – ensured that he has avoided a potential image of nerdy prudishness.
Fitzgerald’s friends, however, seem to have an abundance of stories that illuminate his bachelor ways. While living in New York, he apparently stored papers on top of his cooker, safe in the knowledge that he never used it. Elsewhere, his rare attempts at domesticity seemed to end badly – one tale has him cooking two pans of lasagna, only to forget about them, and discover them still in the oven months later.
Such stories give Fitzgerald a kind of crumpled charm. But the battles in which he is involved are deadly serious. Fitzgerald, it is widely agreed, will leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of what he sees as justice.
“I think what we see here today, when a vice president’s chief of staff is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice, it does show the world that this is a country that takes its law seriously; that all citizens are bound by the law,” he said, announcing the Libby indictment.
“But what we need to also show the world is that we can also apply the same safeguards to all our citizens, including high officials. Much as they must be bound by the law, they must follow the same rules.”
The above profile is drawn in part from a 2005 profile of Patrick Fitzgerald written for the Irish Echo by Niall Stanage.

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