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CHICAGO-When attorney Patrick Cotter brought his client-a convicted Chicago water department official-before a federal judge for sentencing last month, he explained that Donald Tomczak had lived by the rules of “old Chicago.” He wanted to give some context for his client’s taking of $400,000 in bribes in exchange for city trucking business and Tomczak’s side job of rounding up public employees for political campaign work. “A lot of things were just the way politics were done in this state, things that have been shown in prosecutions over the last several years to be unacceptable,” Cotter of Chicago’s Arnstein & Lehr said in an interview after the sentencing. Cotter is part of a white-collar criminal defense cadre in Chicago that is riding a recent wave of work in the longtime cyclical flow of public-corruption cases in Illinois. While none of the attorneys makes a living solely by defending public officials, it’s been a bigger piece of their work lately than for counterparts in other cities. “If you do white-collar work in Chicago, you do public-corruption cases,” said Ronald Safer, a former prosecutor who is now a criminal defense attorney at Chicago’s Schiff Hardin. The U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, Patrick Fitzgerald, is currently investigating the state, the city of Chicago and Cook County, which includes Chicago and some suburban areas. Many of the probes have turned on government hiring practices. Last year, Fitzgerald’s office had 51 public-corruption convictions, more than any other district in the country, and indicted 94 people on such charges, which was more than double the district’s count in 2000. The bulk of the defendants last year were caught in the city trucking scandal that snared Tomczak. The focus on public-corruption prosecutions is not limited to Illinois. The FBI investigated 25% more public-corruption cases in fiscal 2005 than in the previous year, FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. The FBI has also increased the number of agents working on such cases by 74% since 2002, he said. The Chicago legacy The spate of recent Chicago prosecutions and investigations are a continuation of the legacy that has long set the region apart as either a place of persistent public corruption or of zealous prosecutors, depending on one’s viewpoint. In the early 1970s, federal prosecutor James R. Thompson, who would later become a Republican governor of the state, successfully tried former Illinois Governor Otto Kerner for acts of corruption during prior years in office. In the 1980s, the U.S. attorney’s office indicted 94 judges, lawyers, law enforcement officers and other public officials in the FBI’s Operation Greylord. Another agency operation, Silver Shovel in the 1990s, led to corruption convictions against 18 people, including six former Chicago city aldermen. “It helps to know the political landscape and the unique political history of Chicago,” Safer said. Three decades after a federal court ordered the end of political patronage in Chicago and Illinois in the historic Shakman Decrees, some parties to the case are still disputing implementation of the court orders for an end to patronage practices. “You have an environment here that’s a breeding ground for tremendously talented lawyers to be part of a tradition,” said Sidley Austin attorney John Gallo, who declined to name individuals he’s representing related to one of the public-corruption probes. Many in the fraternity of Chicago criminal defense lawyers who handle these cases have worked as prosecutors at some point in the past 30 years. Some are in regular touch with each other and refer clients to one another, depending on the case. Safer, who was formerly chief of the criminal division of the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago, and other attorneys said that Fitzgerald’s office seems to have put a priority on fighting public corruption since he was plucked from New York to take the position in 2001. Safer is currently representing the office of Democratic Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich in an investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office of state hiring practices. That probe comes on the heels of the conviction last year of former Republican Governor George Ryan, who, prosecutors showed, was misusing state funds and giving contracts to friends in exchange for favors. Ryan was convicted in April and sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison, but is free pending an appeal to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Stretching fraud? Many of the defense lawyers say Fitzgerald’s office is now stretching the law in novel-and some say questionable-ways to go after government figures using a broader interpretation of mail fraud. It’s strange to see federal prosecutors bringing criminal, rather than civil, charges in some cases, Safer said. He cited Robert Sorich, who was convicted this year of rigging Chicago’s hiring and promotions to favor political campaign workers and committing mail fraud in the process. Sorich’s lawyer, Thomas Anthony Durkin, argues that his defendant wasn’t even accused of taking money as part of the alleged wrongdoing. “Just because you can shoehorn a theory under an ambiguous mail fraud statute, does that mean you should?” asked Durkin of Durkin & Roberts in Chicago. Including a heavy workload related to Sorich this year, Durkin had spent about a third of his time on such cases, he said. Durkin left the U.S. attorney’s office in 1984 and started the firm with his wife Janis, a former federal defender. Durkin won acquittal for Joseph DeChicio, the town treasurer who was indicted on federal fraud charges in 2001 along with Cicero, Ill., Town President Betty Loren-Maltese, who, prosecutors alleged, worked with a local mob boss. The Chicago firm now has two associates and two of counsel attorneys. Claims that the U.S. attorney has expanded aspects of the mail fraud statute date back more than 30 years, according to Randall Samborn, a spokesman for Fitzgerald’s office. “Over the decades, the court of appeals has consistently affirmed our prosecutions and our track record of nonpartisanship continues to this day,” Samborn said. Some of the lawyers say that one-party dominance of politics in the state, including Mayor Richard M. Daley’s control of Chicago since 1989, may also contribute to the perception, if not the reality, of public corruption. Chicago people place an unusually strong emphasis on relationships in doing business, they say. “For such a big city, it seems like such a small-world place and so much happens because of personal relationships,” said David Yellen, former criminal lawyer, now dean of Loyola University Chicago School of Law. When those relationships come under the microscope, they can engulf a lot of people who may or may not be the targets of a probe. Some are drawn in simply because they may have information pertinent to a probe, regardless of whether they are under suspicion. For every person who may be a target, there are 15 to 20 more affected by the scrutiny and they all need lawyers, Cotter said. The effect is multiplied when local prosecutors follow the lead of federal prosecutors and start their own investigations. For instance, Cotter has one client who has received subpoenas from city, state and county agencies, he said. “We’re developing an expertise by necessity,” Cotter said. “More attorneys have had to deal with representing people who are affected by such investigations.” Attorneys who excel in the area have two key traits, Yellen said. They know how to negotiate behind the scenes with prosecutors to avoid an indictment when possible, and they are great trial lawyers. “That’s a pretty rare combination to be really good at both of those,” he said. The defense attorneys say they must be expert in helping clients deal with bad publicity, especially because the defendants often sacrifice their option to plead the Fifth Amendment in light of their public role. “They’re especially vulnerable to bad publicity,” said Mike Monico, a lawyer in Chicago at Monico, Pavich & Spevack. Monico has represented several public officials over the past three decades and currently represents Christopher Kelly, a fundraiser for Blagojevich, in connection with the probe of the governor’s office. Monico, a former assistant U.S. attorney, set up the office on his own in 1977 and played a role in one of Chicago’s most extensive public-corruption cases. In the Greylord prosecutions, he won the only acquittal for one of the lawyers involved. The Web site for the Chicago firm, which now has eight attorneys, says its lawyers’ “experience ranges from high-profile trials to discreet internal investigations.” Much of the public-corruption work ends up at smaller firms, partly because public officials often can’t afford the higher attorney rates of major firms, the lawyers said. “I don’t like to see anyone indicted, but there’s been a healthy amount of corruption work ever since I’ve been a lawyer,” said Chicago lawyer Marc Martin. Martin, who has been in practice since 1987, said about half of his cases currently have some link to a public office. His solo practice is closely associated with that of Edward Genson, a Chicago criminal lawyer known for acquittals. One notable acquittal came in 1999 for Miguel Santiago, an alleged ghost payroller, even though his boss, unbeknownst to the jury, had pleaded guilty. Martin and Genson share a suite on the 14th floor of the historic Monadnock Building, a 1893 red-stone edifice that houses many of the city’s criminal defense attorneys across the street from the federal courthouse. High-profile attorneys at major firms also take on occasional cases. Dan Webb, now chairman of Chicago-based Winston & Strawn, led the defense of Ryan, with the firm picking up the tab because of ties between Ryan and Jim Thompson, the former Illinois governor and ex-chairman of Winston & Strawn. As for Tomczak, the convicted Chicago water official who, Cotter said, was indicted for the same acts that once won him praise from city superiors, he’ll be serving nearly four years in prison under a plea deal with the U.S. attorney’s office.

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