Federal hiring freeze puts Chicago justice on ice

December 4, 2013 (CHICAGO)

They call it a hard freeze down at Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago: a complete and total federal hiring freeze in place this year. Justice on ice wouldn't be a problem, except that two dozen top prosecutors have resigned and left the office this year and with the freeze on, they haven't been replaced-- except for one, the newly installed U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon.

When Mr. Fardon was sworn in last week to oversee a federal office that covers 18 Illinois counties and replace his legendary predecessor Patrick Fitzgerald, there was a subtle clue in his self-effacing remarks to the Dirksen Building office.

"I wanted to wait until all the money was gone; half the office had quit; crime was at an all-time high; expectations for me were through the roof and I thought, that's when you want to come in to fill Pat Fitzgerald's shoes," said Fardon.

We had to back up the video and listen again to hear it.

In jest, the new U.S. Attorney overstated how many prosecutors here have quit the past 18 months. It isn't half the office. But it is significant and troubling to current and former office insiders.

"It's not as if the criminals stop committing crimes," said Gil Soffer, ABC7 legal analyst.

New ABC7 Legal Analyst Gil Soffer is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney in Chicago.

"It's disappointing and troubling because that office, one of the premiere offices in the country has a lot of work and it needs a lot of people to handle a lot of cases," said Soffer.

And the I-Team has learned that they are down a lot of people in the U.S. Attorney's office and a lot of top lawyers with major case experience have left recently. The I-Team has learned that in recent months, there were 22 Assistant U.S. Attorney departures, with two AUSA'S leaving this month.

While several replacement hires were made before the federal freeze in January, at the end of this year the Chicago office will still be twenty prosecutors short. Despite the backing of Illinois' senators and appointment by President Obama, Fardon was stung by this headline even before taking office-- Mayor Emanuel's criticism of what he saw as slack gun prosecutions by the feds.

But with a dwindling roster of federal attorneys, it may not get better.

"It's impossible to solve the problem of guns and drugs with prosecutors so it's not as if a reduction in staff means necessarily that there is going to be more violence on the streets, more guns in criminals' hands but it is fair to say that is going to make it much tougher to get the work of the office done," said Soffer.

Fardon declined our request for an interview. But this week in New York City, his counterpart was outspoken about federal budget cuts and the hiring freeze, saying "justice cannot be done on the cheap, and public safety does not come free."

"You have attrition, built on top of budget cuts, built on top of special sequestration issues and then you really have an office that's short staffed and requires help," said Soffer.

That word "sequestration" is back. A second round of sequester budget cuts is set to begin January 15. Unless U.S. Attorney offices are exempt, federal prosecutors could be furloughed, further reducing criminal caseloads. On Wednesday, the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys is asking Congress to make sure prosecutors are not pulled off the job.

U.S. Attorney Chicago

National Association of Assistant US Attorneys

ABC7 Legal Analyst Gil Soffer bio

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