Acceding to the demands of the Trump administration, Zachary Fardon stepped down Monday as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.
“It has been the privilege of a lifetime to lead the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago,” Fardon said in a statement. “I want to thank all of the talented men and women of the Office for their hard work and dedicated public service during my term.”
Fardon’s four-year term as U.S. Attorney was to have continued until October.
On Friday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a demand for all 46 U.S. Attorneys appointed by former President Barack Obama to submit their resignations. Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, says he was fired Saturday, after refusing to quit voluntarily.
“To be running their offices full steam ahead on Friday, and then be locked out of their offices on Monday, it makes no sense,” said former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins, who questioned the timing of the move. “What you’ve done overnight is create leaderless offices in some of the most important government work that there is.”
Collins insisted that in his 12 years in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago, he never saw any decisions based on politics.
“I never once detected a sense that we have to push harder or softer because of who this person is,” he said. “Not one word, not one wink or not suggesting that we should push or pull because of who that person is, or if they have an ‘R’ by their name or a ‘D’.”
Protocol says the task of filling the jobs of all three ousted Illinois U.S. Attorneys falls to downstate congressman John Shimkus, the senior Republican member of the state’s congressional delegation. Shimkus spokesman Jordan Haverly said right now the office is in the process of collecting information and the names of any interested parties.
“We’re still waiting on direction from the Department of Justice," he said, promising that Shimkus would seek input from Gov. Bruce Rauner, and even the state’s two Democratic U.S. Senators.
“We expect a very collaborative process,” Haverly said.
Stepping in for Fardon to head the Chicago office on an interim basis will be veteran prosecutor Joel Levin, who had been serving as First Assistant U.S. Attorney.
A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, Levin joined the Chicago U.S. Attorney’s office in 1997, after stints in Milwaukee and San Francisco, where he served as chief of the criminal division. After coming to Chicago in 1997, he held various positions, including chief of the Financial Fraud and Special Prosecutions section in 2007 and 2008.
In 2006, Levin was part of a prosecution team including Fardon and Collins, which spearheaded the Operation Safe Road investigation which led to the conviction of former Governor George Ryan.
“He’s got impeccable judgment,” Collins said. “He was a perfect number two, and I think he will be a great number one, for however long that will happen.”
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Randall Samborn echoed Collins’ assessment that politics plays no role in the office.
“People have this misconception that U.S. Attorneys walk in the door and say, ‘I’m going to go after this person and this person and this person’,” he said. “You don’t go around targeting people to investigate.”
The office is staffed by some 130 career attorneys. And Samborn said none would tolerate a political agenda from a new boss.
“If public corruption cases were killed for political reasons, you would have career prosecutors and agents running to the media in droves,” he said.
Whoever is chosen, both Collins and Samborn stressed the importance of federal experience.
“There’s more than ten people I could identify who would be great,” Collins said. “I do worry that it’s someone who doesn’t understand the traditions of the office, doesn’t understand the completely apolitical nature.”
In the interim, Levin brings some 28 years of federal prosecution experience. He left the office in 2008 for private practice, but returned to serve as Fardon’s First Assistant in the fall of 2014.
Levin has also served as an adjunct law professor at the Northwestern Law School since 2008.