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Patrick Collins had to wait seven days for a verdict in the biggest case of his career. Following an eight-week trial, the Chicago Assistant U.S. Attorney’s case against a former top campaign staffer to ex-Gov. George Ryan had gone to a jury in early March. During the long wait, Collins and his co-counsel spent a lot of time rerunning the trial, wondering what they might have done differently. Even before the jury came in, Collins says, they concluded they wouldn’t have changed a thing. That’s fitting: Collins — who for five years has headed the biggest public corruption investigation in Chicago — is known as a prosecutor who hunts down every lead and questions every witness. So-called Operation Safe Road began as a case against low-level employees of a motor vehicle licensing office. Under Collins, the operation has won 55 convictions, with prosecutors probing into the upper reaches of Illinois politics. “No one handed Patrick Collins this case on a silver platter,” says Collins’ boss, Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. “It took energy, creativity and hard work.” Collins has been involved in public corruption prosecution since he interned at the U.S. Attorney’s Office before graduating from the University of Chicago Law School in 1991. A lifelong Chicagoan, Collins was assigned to assist then-First Assistant Thomas Durkin, now a partner at Chicago’s Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw, in the prosecution of the presiding judge of Cook County’s Chancery Court. Collins, Durkin says, researched and drafted motions, making a strong impression: “He’d walk through a wall to help you.” Collins went to work as an associate at Chicago’s Sachnoff & Weaver after law school, but in 1995 he returned to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He quickly established a reputation as a talented, aggressive lawyer, says Scott Levine, a deputy chief of the criminal division. Levine tapped Collins to assist in Operation Haunted Hall, an investigation of a ghost payroll scheme in the Cook County sheriff’s office. As the investigation spread to City Hall — producing 31 convictions — Collins learned from Levine how to interview witnesses and secure cooperation. Levine, in turn, learned how determined his prot�g� was. “He has integrity, fairness, tenacity — he follows every lead,” says Levine. “He never has the view that anything is too difficult to run down.” Operation Safe Road began in the spring of 1998. Levine and Collins learned of two whistleblowers who’d exposed a scheme in which state officials had been taking bribes to issue trucking licenses to unqualified drivers. Simultaneously, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had uncovered an informant with a similar account. Levine came up with the idea of asking the court to approve a wiretap to confirm the scheme. He says he had planned to start work on the wiretap request after the July 4 weekend. But when Levine arrived at work that Monday morning, he found that Collins had already drafted a court order. “His view is always, ‘Why wait till tomorrow?’” says Levine. After the first wave of Safe Road indictments, in September of 1998, Levine returned to a major organized crime case that was nearing trial. Collins stayed with Safe Road, following evidence from the initial prosecution that linked the bribery scheme to fund-raising tactics in the office of Secretary of State Ryan, who was then running for governor. Safe Road kept expanding as the team turned witnesses and sent them undercover with wires; issued grand jury subpoenas; and developed evidence that would stand up in court. Collins has coordinated the work of a half-dozen prosecutors, and up to 20 investigators from six different state and federal agencies. And he has been lead prosecutor for three of the four Safe Road trials so far. “As a taxpayer,” says Chicago defense lawyer Richard Jalovec, who represented the first Safe Road defendant to be convicted, “you would hope that every government lawyer was as good as [Collins].” The courtroom was packed on the day the Fawell verdict came in. Collins was anxious; this was the biggest Safe Road case to date, and the weeklong wait had been nerve-racking. When the jury convicted on all nine counts, he says, “it was a proud moment for the team.” And, he adds, it gives momentum to his probe. For Collins isn’t done with Safe Road yet. “I can’t say where it’s going,” he says, “but we’re going to follow the evidence wherever it leads.”

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