When mobster Al Capone tried to bribe one of his G-Men, Eliot Ness — the pugnacious leader of Chicago’s legendary “Untouchables” — called a press conference to tell reporters that he wanted “Capone and every gangster in the city to realize there were still a few law enforcement agents who couldn’t be swerved from their duty.”
When U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was sent to clean up corruption in the Windy City like Ness had done a century before, he arrived with an impressive record prosecuting blind Muslim cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, Mafia leaders John and Joseph Gambino, and Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former vice president Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.
But then he ran into a talkative, mop-haired politician named Rod Blagojevich, and Fitzgerald’s prosecutorial luck ran out. Despite political corruption so egregious that the veteran prosecutor said it “would make Lincoln roll over in his grave,” Fitzgerald didn’t fire a warning shot at his most memorable press conference on Dec. 9, 2008. Instead, he prematurely pulled the plug on his own investigation.
Five days earlier, the Chicago Tribune had reported that former Blago chief of staff John Wyma was cooperating with Fitzgerald’s office and secretly wiretapping the Illinois governor’s alleged attempts to sell Barack Obama’s old Senate seat to the highest bidder. But Fitzgerald suddenly had Blagojevich arrested before any deal could be finalized.
The Wall Street Journal noted at the time, “The precise timing of Tuesday’s dramatic, pre-dawn arrest … was dictated by the Chicago Tribune, according to people close to the investigation and a careful reading of the FBI’s affidavit in the case.”
What happened? If Wyma compromised the investigation and revealed that the feds were secretly recording Blagojevich’s conversations, why wasn’t he punished?
Without even mounting a defense, Blago was convicted last year of lying to the FBI, only one of the 24 charges Fitzgerald brought against him.
On April 20, Fitzgerald will retry Blagojevich again on 20 charges, including several tied to the Senate-seat-for-sale allegations. This time, Blago’s legal team has asked the judge to release sealed notes from an interview the FBI conducted with Obama, which they claim “may impeach government witnesses” — perhaps entangling Chicago Dems and administration members.
If Fitzgerald can’t get the charges against Blagojevich to stick this time, his image as the modern day version of Ness will be over, and questions about his handling of the case will cloud what remains of his once-promising career.
Barbara F. Hollingsworth is The Washington Examiner local opinion editor.