Greising: Current U.S. Attorney Lets Evidence Gathering, Subpoenas Speak for Themselves
BGA President David Greising writes a regular column for Crain's Chicago Business.
We don't even know the name yet.
The feds have staged high-profile raids on public offices, indicted a sitting alderman and a state senator, subpoenaed Commonwealth Edison and grabbed boxes and laptops from suburban town halls.
There has been a flurry of activity, some of it connected, much of it probably not. With other high-profile federal investigations in the past, the names had gotten out by now: Operation Greylord, Operation Silver Shovel, Operation Incubator, Operation Safe Road.
The cognoscenti of corruption in Chicago can tick off the titles and what they signaled: Greylord was corrupt judges; Silver Shovel, city contracting; Incubator, the water and streets departments; Safe Road, bribes for truck driver's licenses.
Today's activity—Operation WhatsItsName, let's call it—hasn't yet come into focus in the same tidy way. For now, it seems, the feds are happy to let their very public investigative techniques do the talking.
That hard-nosed, low-profile approach has the fingerprints of U.S. Attorney John Lausch all over it. Put your head down. Get the work done. Be aggressive. Don't worry about the limelight.
That's the reputation Lausch had as an assistant U.S. attorney, when he was deeply involved in fighting the street gangs. It's the way he's operating as U.S. attorney, too.
In the effort to get a handle on gun violence last year, Lausch put on a Kevlar vest and joined Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson in late-night visits to some of the most troubled neighborhoods.
Showing up in the wee hours, one participant told me, they shook hands with beat cops and FBI agents on the job, thanked them for their work and moved on. No TV cameras, no public attention, just a couple of law enforcement officers showing respect for colleagues who serve on the streets. Johnson said this had not previously happened in his time as superintendent.
Some U.S. attorneys are born to the public limelight, others let the work and results speak for themselves. Either can be effective. Jim Thompson loved the cameras, Tom Sullivan did not. Both were successful as the top federal prosecutor in northern Illinois.
It's early days for Lausch, and the investigations won't mean much if he doesn't ultimately win convictions. But in terms of ambition, the work on public corruption so far seems cut from the cloth of Dan Webb, Anton Valukas, Patrick Fitzgerald and others who have served the office with distinction.
It's a reflection of Lausch's style that we know so little about him. He won the state high school championship as captain of Joliet Catholic High School's football team. He attended Harvard, then Northwestern Law. From 1999 to 2010, Lausch mainly fought gang crimes as an assistant U.S. attorney, went to Kirkland & Ellis and defended BP in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and became President Trump's appointee to replace Zachary Fardon as U.S. attorney in late 2017.
To consider just how low-key Lausch has chosen to be, think of it this way: When he indicted the longest-serving alderman in Chicago history, the one who essentially ran City Council as head of the Finance Committee, Lausch didn't even hold a press conference.
Now that's restraint.
Mainly, Lausch is letting high-profile public evidence gathering and quietly filed subpoenas speak for themselves.
To announce the Burke investigation, Lausch's raiders hung up butcher paper on Burke's City Hall office in the middle of the day. As part of an investigation of state Sen. Martin Sandoval, head of the Transportation Committee, they've raided village offices in Lyons and McCook.
The subpoenas they silently file say even more.
The feds have twice subpoenaed Commonwealth Edison—once for questions related to Ald. Mike Zalewski, and on Oct. 10 it was disclosed they have sought records related to Sandoval.
One of Lausch's deputies, Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu, has signed subpoenas related to investigations of Zalewski, Burke and state Sen. Thomas Cullerton.
Does this mean all this work is connected? No one outside the Federal Building seems to know. To the extent the BGA, WBEZ and others have reported on the feds' interest in Madigan, the information has come from confidential sources, not any publicly filed subpoena or official communication by the U.S. attorney's office.
One thing we do know: That office under Lausch is working hard and playing for keeps. Code names and press conferences can wait. It's the work they're doing—and the possible criminal connections they may be piecing together—that will matter in the end.