U.S. Attorney shares “report card,” priorities

One year in, Fardon speaks about his record prosecuting Chicago crime

Zachary Fardon
Zachary Fardon, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, spoke to members of the Union League Club of Chicago Wednesday morning about his ongoing priorities for prosecuting crime.

by Mary Cirincione

Since Zachary Fardon took office as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois last October, 379 people have been killed in Chicago. Nearly 1,600 people have been shot. Just this past week, a 19-year-old man was arrested at O’Hare International Airport on his way to Turkey with plans to join up with ISIS forces in Syria.

As he looked back on his first year as the state’s top prosecutor Wednesday, Fardon was rightfully reluctant to brag about progress in the war against crime. But in the last week alone, his office has indicted a high-frequency trader for manipulating commodities futures, charged 22 defendants for alleged roles in drug ring activities and extracted a guilty plea from a man who was illegally exporting controlled materials to Pakistan.

His team will also bring the case against the young man who had eyes for ISIS, Mohammed Hamzah Khan, who is scheduled for a detention hearing Thursday.

In a speech to members of the Union League Club of Chicago, Fardon said it’s hard to define success in his job but it isn’t all about numbers. “Here’s what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean the statistics of the day. It doesn’t mean the homicide rate up or down in a particular month, or even shootings up or down, in a particular month.”

“To me, an honest answer to [the question of success] is when the people who live in the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago, the South Side, the West Side, don’t have to worry about their kids walking to school. They don’t have to worry about bullets whizzing through the wall.”

Chicago is obviously not there yet.

Although the U.S. Attorney diminished the role of statistics, he didn’t dismiss them altogether. That’s probably because the number of murders in the city is lower than last year.

“While I don’t think statistics are what matter most, our homicide rate is down,” Fardon said. “It was down last year. It was the lowest rate we’ve had in Chicago since 1967, which is a pretty long time. And it’s down this year, 7.3 percent from where we were this time last year. So that’s a pretty strong trajectory of progress.”

In April, the Chicago Office of the Inspector General released an audit citing several instances in which Chicago Police Department’s reporting methods failed to meet national standards. The official report describes how the department underreported and misreported certain types of crime, casting doubt on claims that violent crime inside the city has actually fallen.

As the top federal law enforcement official in Chicago, Fardon is involved in the broader fight against crime but not necessarily street crime. His office tackles big investigations, pursuing cases against organized crime including gun traffickers and drug gangs. But he doesn’t supervise the Chicago Police, which is the job of Superintendent Garry McCarthy. But the offices work together, especially when it comes to making use of an anti-racketeering law that allows gang leaders and members to be charged as an organization.

Fardon has supported the efforts of a joint strike force that includes representatives from his office, as well as the Illinois State Police; Chicago Police; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Fardon said he considers the law enforcement community inside Chicago to be “like-minded,” in terms of their belief in the need to share information, intelligence and resources. Members of the strike force “work together, fulltime, under one roof in the city of Chicago,” Fardon said.

Fardon’s appointment came nearly a decade after he left the position of assistant U.S. attorney under Patrick Fitzgerald, the man with whom he worked to indict and convict former Gov. George Ryan for corruption.

Fardon told his listeners that his office’s priorities fall into four buckets: violent crime, public corruption, financial fraud and national security. Violent crime is at the top, he said.

“Fardon has shifted the focus to where it needs to be,” said Ron Safer, a managing partner at Schiff Hardin LLP and former federal prosecutor. “The most important thing he’s done is refocused—both his rhetoric and the office—on violent crime. As a result of that, you’ll see in the coming months increased prosecution of violent crime organizations, street gangs.”

But gauging success in a single year for any U.S. attorney is inherently difficult, said Vince Connelly, a partner at Mayer Brown LLP. Connelly started out as a federal prosecutor in Chicago and was once the Chief of Special Prosecutions. “Many of the cases brought by the U.S. Attorney’s office are deep dives and investigations. They generally require a fair amount of investigation, and require the office to stay quiet for a long period of time to see how something plays out.”

Connelly’s point was this: the majority of the cases brought during Fardon’s first year were more than likely initiated by the two men who held the job before him, Fitzgerald and Gary Shapiro. According to Connelly, the position of U.S. attorney can change hands, but the office maintains the same general direction.