Friends say "no back-story" to Fitzgerald's exit

FILE - In this June 27, 2011 file photo, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois Patrick Fitzgerald speaks at a news conference after former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was convicted by a jury of 17 of 20 corruption charges. On Wednesday, May 23, 2012, Fitzgerald's office announced that he is stepping down effective June 30, 2012.
File,AP Photo/M. Spencer Green
File,AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

(CBS News) United States Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who is one of the most famous and most feared federal prosecutors, announced his resignation from the Justice Department Wednesday.

Fitzgerald is the longest-serving U.S. attorney in Chicago, but he has also served longer than any attorney general since the early 1800s, a rare occurrence given that U.S. attorneys are political appointees who usually stay on the job for just a few years. His staying power is illustrated in a 20-page "summary of selected matters" his office compiled. The high-profile cases include the successful corruption prosecutions of former Illinois governors George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, whose indictment provoked one of the most memorable quotes from the case: Blagojevich's conduct "would make (Abraham) Lincoln roll over in his grave."

Within the larger world of the Justice Department, Fitzgerald was repeatedly tasked with the most difficult and sensitive investigations, a reflection of what associates describe as his fearless and relentless pursuit of the facts and the truth.

Patrick Fitzgerald resigning U.S. attorney post

In 2003, he was appointed as special counsel to investigate who leaked the identity of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, which led to the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a top aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney. After a parade of high-level administration witnesses before a federal grand jury in Washington, Libby was indicted. Fitzgerald personally tried the case, resulting in Libby's 2007 conviction on five of six charges of lying and obstruction. Karl Rove, a top aide to Former President George Bush, had to make five trips to the grand jury before Fitzgerald and the grand jurors were convinced that his case should be closed without charges.

The Scooter Libby case brought Fitzgerald the kind of public attention that federal prosecutors rarely encounter. In a famous Saturday Night Live sketch in 2005, Tina Fey admitted having a crush, saying in a dreamy tone: "Trim, soft-spoken, manly Patrick Fitzgerald. His clear, steady voice, piercing blue eyes and unimpeachable integrity restoring my faith in America and making me want to do things I have never done before." His longtime spokesman Randy Samborn regularly fielded questions about Fitzgerald's marital status. After the case, he married a teacher and they have two young children.

Close friends of Fitzgerald say "there is no back-story," meaning no sinister reason for his departure and no secret plans to run for public office. As one friend put it, "there is no chance in hell that he would run for public office." He has been on the short-list to succeed FBI Director Robert Mueller, another legendary work-horse, whose ten year term was extended another two years until September, 2013.

In a written statement, Attorney General Eric Holder lauded Fitzgerald for serving "the American people and the citizens of Illinois with the utmost integrity and a steadfast commitment to the cause of justice." Holder also called him a "prosecutor's prosecutor," one of the highest compliments in the legal world.

Fitzgerald will officially step down on June 30. He is planning a news conference tomorrow in Chicago. No replacement has yet been named.