When Bill Clinton took office in January 1993, he was hearing the foot steps of Little Rock US Attorney Charles Banks, who was hot on his heels as he probed charges of corruption that swirled around the Watergate land deal. President Clinton decided, in one of his first acts, to fire all 93 US Attorneys - claiming he wanted a clean slate.
Many insiders suspected that the other 92 bodies were a cover for firing Banks and replacing him with Paula Casey, a Clinton ally.
US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's indictment of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich raises a similar question as President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office. Will the new president fire Fitzgerald?
In view of the often-close relationship between Blagojevich, Obama and other key members of the incoming administration, it would be a travesty were Fitzgerald's head to roll now. Consider:
* Fitzgerald has already indicted and convicted Antoin Rezko, Obama's friend and key financial backer who may have arranged for the then-state-senator to acquire his home and adjoining property on advantageous terms.
* Obama and incoming Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel were among an intimate circle of Blagojevich advisers when Blago first ran for governor in 2002. Emanuel says that he, Obama and others "participated in a small group that met weekly when Rod was running for governor. We basically laid out the general election, Barack and I and these two."
* Obama adviser and media guru David Axelrod worked for Blagojevich in his races for Congress before he ran for governor, although Axelrod (a consultant of uncommon integrity) refused to work for Blagojevich when he ran for governor.
* Even though Fitzgerald had already made clear that he was investigating the governor, following up "very serious allegations of endemic hiring fraud" and noted that he had "a number of credible witnesses," Obama vigorously backed Blagojevich for re-election in 2006. At the Illinois State Fair that August, ABC's Jake Tapper reported that Obama told the crowd, "We've got a governor in Rod Blagojevich who has delivered consistently on behalf of the people of Illinois."
Fitzgerald has clearly signaled that his probe doesn't involve Obama, but who knows if it might lead to other Illinois Democrats in the new president's coterie of aides?
If Fitzgerald stays on the job, we can be sure the investigation will be pursued honestly and thoroughly. His Inspector Javert-like pursuit of the Valerie Plame scandal, aimed at the heart of the Bush administration, should be more than enough proof of his nonpolitical credentials.
Obama shouldn't hesitate to replace Fitzgerald once his work is done. But if he removes the Illinois US attorney right off the bat, we'll be left wondering if he did so to cover something up.
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