Chicago U.S. Attorney John Lausch to leave Justice Department


U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois John Lausch speaks during a news conference in the courtyard of the Dirksen Federal Building in the Loop on Friday afternoon, July 17, 2020.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago U.S. Attorney John Lausch will soon leave office after five consequential years leading the prosecution of deadly street gangs, securing the sex-crimes conviction of a global R&B superstar and reshaping Chicago politics with an aggressive battle against public corruption.

The news of Lausch’s departure — expected by early March — comes as a series of big-ticket trials are set to begin at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. And it immediately kicked off the search for the city’s next U.S. attorney, who will hold one of the state’s most powerful offices.

Though it may take some time for a successor to be chosen, that person will likely inherit the feds’ marquee case against former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who is not set for trial until April 2024.

Lausch is also likely to leave office ahead of the March 6 trial of four people accused of trying to bribe Madigan to benefit ComEd. It’s unlikely that a permanent successor will be in place in time for that trial, which will serve as a preview of the Madigan case.

Attorney General Merrick Garland revealed Lausch’s plans Thursday in Washington, D.C. He did so while making remarks about the appointment of a special counsel to look into classified documents found at the home and an office of President Joe Biden.

Lausch had initially been asked by Garland to review the documents, and Garland told reporters that Lausch recommended an investigation by a special counsel. Garland then said Lausch told him he “would be unable to accept any longer-term assignment because he would be leaving the Department [of Justice] in early 2023 for the private sector.”

Joseph Fitzpatrick, Lausch’s spokesman, told the Chicago Sun-Times that Lausch plans to leave by the end of February or early March. Fitzpatrick said Lausch is planning to take some time off after leaving office and then consider his career options.

It’s unclear who will lead the office immediately after Lausch’s departure. The role of interim U.S. attorney traditionally falls to the office’s first assistant U.S. attorney, a job currently held by Morris Pasqual.

U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth said in a statement that they “will work to ensure that the next U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois will be a person of outstanding qualifications and integrity.”

“We thank U.S. Attorney Lausch for serving the Northern District of Illinois with professionalism and without partisanship for the last five years,” they said.

Biden and Durbin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, have prioritized diversity of race, gender and experience on the federal bench during the president’s first two years in office. Such considerations could also be in play in the search for the next U.S. attorney — an office that has been dominated by white males. 

Former federal prosecutor Nancy DePodesta said there has been “talk for some time about the first woman U.S. attorney in Chicago.”

“There are several very, very capable, talented women out there,” said DePodesta, now a partner at Saul Ewing LLP. “And it’s not just because they’re women, but because they’ve served as assistant United States attorneys before, and they could bring tremendous talent, qualifications and direction to the position. I think you’re going to hear a lot about the appointment of a female U.S. attorney.”

Jeffrey Cramer, another former federal prosecutor, said it’s also crucial that whoever is chosen has the across-the-board respect of prosecutors, law enforcement and defense attorneys.

“If you don’t have that respect, then all the good work that the office is known for could easily just splinter,” said Cramer, who is now a senior managing director at Guidepost Solutions.

As for Lausch, Cramer said he has not only upheld the credibility of one of the best U.S. attorney offices in the country, but “he’s built on it.”

Renato Mariotti, who also once served as a federal prosecutor but is now a partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP, said “there’s no question that the office has had some very significant public corruption successes on his watch, and I don’t think there’s any question that John managed to have the confidence of people on both sides of the aisle in terms of his judgment and his handling of those cases. Which is no small feat.”

DePodesta, Cramer and Mariotti pointed to Lausch’s contributions to the fight against violent crime in Chicago, which speaks to Lausch’s early experience as a prosecutor.

“John redirected resources within the office to prosecute gun and drug cases to combat violence and combat street gangs in Chicago,” Mariotti said. “And that is something John feels strongly about.”

But Lausch will almost certainly be remembered for the blockbuster racketeering indictment brought nearly a year ago against Madigan, which capped a yearslong investigation into old-school Chicago politics.

It was also under Lausch that former Chicago Ald. Danny Solis (25th) was outed by the Sun-Times as a government mole. Solis’ cooperation predated Lausch, but the evidence he gathered became key to the indictments of Madigan and Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th). 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu told a judge last year that Solis’ undercover work in Chicago — a town known for corruption — had been “extraordinary” and “singular.”

Mariotti said that Bhachu leads an “exceptional” team handling the Madigan prosecution, and he said it was unlikely to be thrown off track by the office’s change in leadership.

That office has already changed the course of Chicago politics irreversibly, despite not yet securing a conviction against Madigan or Burke, who also faces trial on a racketeering indictment in November.

Madigan left office two years ago amid the feds’ burgeoning investigation, and Burke chose not to seek re-election this year after 54 years in office. As a result, the careers of two of Chicago’s most powerful politicians appear to have been ended by the work of Lausch’s office.

Lausch’s tenure began after his predecessor, former U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon, was ousted in 2017 by then-President Donald Trump’s administration. Lausch’s background battling street violence pushed him to the top of the list of potential replacements. 

From the start, Lausch had to navigate a perilous position as the Justice Department’s man in Chicago during the Republican Trump administration that enjoyed little support here. Lausch seemed to pull off that feat in an intensely partisan era.

Then Biden, a Democrat, came into office in 2021 and made moves that would have ousted Lausch. Illinois’ Democratic senators successfully fought to keep Lausch — a Trump nominee — in office.

They insisted that there was precedent for a U.S. attorney to remain in office “to conclude sensitive investigations.” That was taken as a reference to the Madigan case.

Perhaps the loudest criticism of Lausch came last year amid his office’s decision not to bring charges against former Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who had already served more than three years in prison for the second-degree murder of teenager Laquan McDonald. Van Dyke’s conviction was handed down by a jury in state court.

Otherwise, Lausch’s office has been mostly lauded as it cast a wide public-corruption net. Current or former elected officials who also faced charges under Lausch included Thomas Cullerton, Luis Arroyo, Martin Sandoval, Terry Link, Emil Jones III, Annazette Collins, Louis Presta and Ricardo Munoz.

That list also includes former Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson, the grandson of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley and nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Thompson went to trial last February, and it ended with his conviction for cheating on his taxes and lying to regulators

It cost him his seat on the City Council.

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) is also under indictment and facing trial.

Lausch’s office even leveled charges against ComEd and AT&T Illinois as part of the Madigan investigation.

During his more than five years as Chicago’s top federal prosecutor, Lausch mostly let the indictments do the talking. He once made a rare direct plea to U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber, asking the judge to reject a request for a sentencing break from Gangster Disciples co-founder Larry Hoover. Lausch told the judge it would be a “miscarriage of justice to reduce [Hoover’s] sentence in any way, shape or form.”

The judge initially turned Hoover down, but Hoover has renewed his request.

Lausch’s team also secured an indictment and conviction against R&B singer R. Kelly, who faces sentencing next month before Leinenweber.

Fate put Lausch in charge of the U.S. attorney’s office during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to an unprecedented shutdown of Chicago’s federal court. Shortly after it began, prosecutors acknowledged they were having trouble convening grand juries. They eventually began to churn out several charges against politically connected individuals in 2020, though, as well as ComEd.

The day ComEd was charged, Lausch held a press conference outside the Dirksen Courthouse with officials from the FBI and IRS. And he acknowledged he had characterized public corruption as a “very stubborn problem.”

“It continues to be a stubborn problem,” Lausch said. “But I feel very confident with the people that are working here … that we’re going to do whatever we can to try and whack away at that stubborn problem.”

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