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Chicago insider set to succeed Fitzgerald


– The lanky, soft-spoken lawman from New York arrived in Chicago with a mandate to clean up corruption-plagued Illinois. And after a decade on the job, Patrick Fitzgerald had helped put two successive governors and a long procession of other public officials behind bars.

Months after the consummate outsider resigned as head of the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago to enter private practice, the White House is expected to name Fitzgerald’s replacement soon from among four finalists – all of whom are comparative Chicago insiders.

Whoever is picked, the next U.S. attorney will step in to what is widely regarded as Chicago’s second-most powerful job, next only to the mayor. The chief prosecutor and around 170 assistant attorneys also have an influence beyond Chicago and Illinois, including by handling major terrorism cases.

“The fantastic thing about Fitzgerald was that he maintained his independence,” said Kathleen Zellner, a Chicago-based defense attorney. “I’m not saying these candidates won’t be independent, but it’s hard to decide to prosecute when you have (such close) connections to a town.”

The list of four finalists – Lori Lightfoot, Zachary Fardon, Jonathan Bunge and Gil Soffer – was recently forwarded to the Obama administration by Illinois’ two U.S. senators, who set up a screening committee to vet a longer list of prospective candidates over several months.

All four know their way around the federal prosecutor’s office in Chicago – one of the nation’s busiest – each having worked there as assistant attorneys at some point.

And all four, who are little known outside legal circles, are currently partners in big-name law offices in Chicago.

Appointing someone with Chicago ties may convey confidence that Chicago is no longer as corrupt as it was, said Gal Pissetzky, another Chicago attorney. He said it could signal a desire to shift focus away from corruption and on to other persistent Chicago crime, such as drug trafficking or gang-related murders.

“If you want to tackle these issues, it might make sense to have someone from Chicago,” he said. “They know the inner workings of Chicago. And law enforcement will be more cooperative when you bring someone from the inside, from Chicago.”