CHICAGO (Sun-Times Media Wire) - When Chicago’s top fed appeared beside U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch for a nationally televised, 30-minute press conference on Monday, he spent less than three minutes answering questions.
But during the announcement of a Department of Justice investigation into the practices of the Chicago Police Department, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon hardly shied away from his office’s history of vigorous prosecutions — in which he has played a key role, the Sun-Times is reporting.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago has a great history of doing that and proving that it is both independent and appropriately aggressive when it comes to ferretting out criminal conduct,” Fardon said.
Fardon, Chicago’s top federal law enforcement official since 2013, isn’t one to seek the spotlight. But that press conference with Lynch put him in one of the most high-profile positions he’s found himself in since taking the job. His office is expected to assist the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division as it embarks on an investigation that could outlast the Obama administration.
DOJ staffers are expected to set up shop in Chicago as the probe gets underway. Jonathan Smith, a former chief of the DOJ special litigation section that will handle the inquiry, said that office is made up of about 55 lawyers and a total staff of 80.
Smith, now an associate dean at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, said Washington lawyers could find valuable teammates in local authorities who know Chicago’s history and its players.
“Together, that’s a very powerful partnership,” Smith said.
Fardon’s office is separately investigating the October 2014 police shooting death of Laquan McDonald that spawned the DOJ investigation. Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times on camera.
Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder last month, the same day City Hall followed through on a court order to release footage of McDonald’s death. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez has been hounded to resign for failing to bring charges sooner, and for doing so only upon the video’s release.
Fardon’s office simply released a statement confirming that its probe is “ongoing.” Some activists have expressed frustration with Fardon. But Chicago defense attorney Larry Beaumont said Fardon won’t be swayed by “public clamor.”
“When I was working with him, he was extremely professional,” said Beaumont, a former federal prosecutor. “He wasn’t a political person at all.”
Fardon’s team secured several key convictions recently. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s former hand-picked Chicago Public Schools CEO, admitted her role in a brazen kickback scheme in October. Federal prosecutors also secured the conviction of Michael Coscia in a first-of-its-kind “spoofing” trial watched closely by the financial sector.
But the case that most closely rivals the CPD investigation in national significance is the indictment of former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Fardon’s office announced Hastert’s jaw-dropping indictment for lying to the feds and skirting banking laws in May. Five months later, the once-powerful politician pleaded guilty.
Before becoming U.S. Attorney, Fardon helped prosecute former Gov. George Ryan. Later, in private practice, he represented John Wyma, a key figure in the investigation of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Smith said help from Fardon’s office could make an “enormous difference” in the DOJ’s CPD investigation, which could require analysis of hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and interviews with rank-and-file police and community members.
Stephen Rushin, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama School of Law who has studied similar investigations, said the DOJ will likely hire experts on policing and other topics to do some groundwork.
Meanwhile, Beaumont predicted Fardon’s focus will remain simply “on the law, and what his professional responsibilities are.”