Greater Clevelanders know Ed FitzGerald as the Cuyahoga County executive and former mayor of Lakewood.
But as he introduces himself to all Ohioans as a candidate for governor, FitzGerald gives at least equal billing to his past as an FBI special agent, a job he held for three years in the 1990s. When he invited supporters to his campaign kickoff last month, he emphasized his FBI past without even noting his current role as leader of the state’s most populous county.
FitzGerald, a Democrat, clearly hopes a crime-fighting image can help carry him past Republican incumbent John Kasich next year. Though this is not the first time FitzGerald’s FBI years have been a key talking point in his climb up the political ladder, specific details about his work at the Chicago field office have been scarce — until now.
In an interview last week, FitzGerald, 44, offered an extensive, first-hand account of his brief FBI career. He recalled assisting a hunt for a suspected serial killer, grilling a future governor and busting a crooked public health commissioner. He also addressed his short stay, unusual by FBI standards. FitzGerald said he and his wife wanted to raise their children in Cleveland, where they had lived earlier in their marriage. Given his lack of seniority, a transfer would have taken years.
“I liked Chicago,” FitzGerald said. “But I didn’t want to raise my family there.”
The FBI’s tight-lipped culture makes it tough to paint a fuller picture of FitzGerald’s time as a G-Man.
His personnel records are not public documents. Most agents who likely would have worked or been familiar with him from 1995 through 1998 could not be reached by telephone and did not respond to emails. And a special agent and spokeswoman for the Chicago office declined a request to interview anyone there who might remember FitzGerald.
“We are expressly prohibited from publicly engaging in political campaigns in our official capacities, and to speak about Mr. Fitzgerald could arguably be interpreted as an endorsement by the FBI,” Joan Hyde wrote in an email.
The Plain Dealer reached one former boss who was willing to share thoughts about FitzGerald. Tom Bourgeois, a retired agent who supervised FitzGerald in Chicago, recalled him fondly. Bourgeois said FitzGerald was a primary investigator on several assignments related to a massive corruption case that FitzGerald often cites as his FBI capstone.
“He has a great deal of character,” Bourgeois said. “I had a lot of respect for him. I wish him well.”
A little bit Hollywood, a little bit ho-hum
FitzGerald, who was raised in Indianapolis, grew up interested in politics and law. He recalls researching the FBI application process for a high school project because he thought it would be an exciting job.
After graduating from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in 1993, FitzGerald dabbled in local politics and took a job with the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office. But he remained intrigued by the FBI and was hired in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. County records show he resigned as an assistant county prosecutor in September 1995.
“There’s a Hollywood version of the FBI,” FitzGerald said last week. “Then there’s the everyday version.”
The tenure FitzGerald described was a bit of both — exploits with payoffs worthy of movies and television shows, but also the more prosaic duties of daily casework. FitzGerald joined the Chicago office after training in Quantico, Va. Upon arriving he and other new recruits spent several months rotating through different units.
FitzGerald’s sampling included stints with a fugitive task force, a drug squad and a domestic terrorism squad that was bustling after Oklahoma City.
The rookie FitzGerald also briefly worked on the investigation of Paul Runge, a suspect in a string of murders. Runge confessed in 2001 to seven slayings, six of which occurred after police and the FBI placed him under periodic surveillance, according to news reports at the time. Runge is serving life in prison for murdering a 35-year-old woman and her 10-year-old daughter. The abolishment of the death penalty in Illinois prompted prosecutors to drop charges in the other cases.
But FitzGerald’s goal was to work corruption cases. Eventually he scored an assignment in a unit dedicated to fighting organized crime, particularly in nearby Cicero. Gangster Al Capone ran a criminal enterprise from the suburb decades earlier and left a legacy of sleazy politics. FitzGerald came in the midst of a sprawling investigation of public officials.
Bourgeois could not recall specific projects FitzGerald handled but said he was deeply involved with several pieces of the Cicero investigation. Every agent on the case had a set of responsibilities, and FitzGerald was no different, he said.
“In Cicero, we had one big, massive case, but there were aspects that were knocked out of it,” said Bourgeois, who estimated that the unit’s work made possible more than 30 convictions of public officials and mobbed-up players. “Certainly Ed had cases where he went after [a suspect] because he was the primary investigator on a specific case.”
‘The Irish kid’ finds some informants
FitzGerald developed informants by making his presence known at Cicero Town Hall.
“I had a lot of business cards circulating,” he said. “They knew me. ‘Oh, the Irish kid from the FBI is here.'”
Occasionally FitzGerald had his informants wear wires when meeting with Mafia figures.
“You’ve seen this in movies,” he said. “I’m the guy sitting in the hotel room next to them.”
FitzGerald took the lead on one case in which a source tipped him off to a scheme involving Cicero’s health commissioner. Wayne Cichowicz was overbilling the town’s health insurance program for treatment he provided through his private medical practice, cheating Cicero out of more than $100,000. FitzGerald said Cichowicz eventually confessed to him. A judge sentenced Cichowicz to six years in prison in 2000.
Another informant’s tip led FitzGerald to George Ryan, then the Illinois secretary of state and future governor. There were rumors Ryan and his staff were corrupt. FitzGerald said he and a colleague questioned Ryan in 1998. Nothing came of the meeting, but when testifying at a 2006 trial, the second agent recalled Ryan as evasive, according to news reports.
FitzGerald said last week that Ryan feigned ignorance when asked in 1998 about his fundraising activities.
“I went back to my supervisors and said I didn’t think he was being forthcoming,” FitzGerald said. “I told them there was a lack of candor. Those allegations eventually were part of the bedrock of the case against George Ryan.”
Ryan and his campaign fund, Citizens for Ryan, ultimately were convicted of corruption charges.
“My recollection is that it certainly was the first time he was formally interviewed about corruption in his office,” FitzGerald said of his 1998 meeting with Ryan, a Republican.
“But I would never say that I started the investigation.”
FitzGerald pulled at other threads that would weave into the snowballing Cicero probe.
He took note of contracts canceled at Town Hall and often found that the fired companies had stopped paying kickbacks. The investigations continued after he left in 1998 and culminated in 2002 with the conviction of Town President Betty Loren-Maltese. She and others were involved in a scam to steal more than $12 million in town funds through a mob-run insurance firm.
FBI career draws political scrutiny
FitzGerald is not the first FBI agent to go into politics. He’s not even the first from the Cicero unit.
Mike Rogers left the bureau in 1994 and was elected to the Michigan State Senate as a Republican the following year. Five years later he won a seat in Congress after a campaign in which he emphasized his FBI background. The FBI Agents Association, which represents active and former agents,recently endorsed Rogers to be the bureau’s next director.
“We literally sat at the same desk,” said FitzGerald, who arrived about a year after Rogers left.
FitzGerald launched his political career soon after moving back to Ohio. He returned to the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office and was appointed to a seat on the Lakewood City Council. He played up his FBI credentials in subsequent runs for state representative and mayor and — most notably — in his 2010 campaign for county executive.
The FBI at the time was in the midst of a widespread investigation of county leaders and contractors. The probe, reminiscent of Cicero, encouraged voters to install a new form of government led by a single elected executive.
Opponents, as they had in FitzGerald’s past campaigns, tried to diminish his FBI record.
Rival Democrats said a form FitzGerald submitted when applying for the council seat noted only two months at the FBI. FitzGerald openly wondered if the application had been surreptitiously altered by his enemies in Lakewood.
After winning the primary, FitzGerald surfaced tangentially in the county case after prosecutors revealed a wiretapped telephone conversation he had with then-County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, a target of the investigation. Dimora, who owed a favor to a crooked developer, had asked FitzGerald to speak with the businessman about a Lakewood contract.
FitzGerald, who was never accused of wrongdoing, won the general election despite his Republican opponent’s attempt to characterize him as corrupt. Earlier this year, the lead prosecutor publicly cleared FitzGerald of suspicion.
A bid for governor likely means a fresh round of scrutiny of FitzGerald’s FBI career, though Kasich and his allies at the Ohio Republican Party have not yet gone there. But a top conservative blogger in Ohio and a local gadfly already have taken to their websites to suggest that FitzGerald has embellished his time in Chicago.
They question a biography on the county’s website that states FitzGerald was recognized for “heading up a wide-ranging and successful investigation into organized crime and political corruption.” FitzGerald told The Plain Dealer the biography refers to the Cichowicz case.
Critics also note the lack of published news articles identifying FitzGerald as an agent during that time period. The Plain Dealer found one: a 2006 story by the Associated Press that referenced his 1998 interview of Ryan. Several other agents’ names appeared in stories about Loren-Maltese’s conviction in 2002, several years after FitzGerald left.
Bourgeois said FBI agents rarely get their names in the paper while an investigation is in progress. That doesn’t mean FitzGerald didn’t carry his weight in Cicero, Bourgeois added. FitzGerald said he was on the witness list for Loren-Maltese’s trial and traveled to Chicago for it but was never called to the stand.
FitzGerald’s brief tenure exacerbates the skepticism.
“Most people once they become an FBI agent are in it for the duration,” Bourgeois acknowledged.
But others have moved on relatively quickly — and for similar reasons. Rogers, the Republican congressman, left the FBI after five years because he and his wife had started a family and wanted to return to Michigan, according to a Washington Post column on his 2000 congressional race. And like FitzGerald, Rogers quickly jumped into politics.
FitzGerald’s campaign trumpets his FBI background as a standalone selling point, but FitzGerald said it is unfair to overlook his other law-enforcement credentials, especially his two stints as an assistant county prosecutor. He also noted that he served as safety director while mayor of Lakewood, though that’s not uncommon for suburban mayors.
“This has been a consistent interest in my life,” FitzGerald said. “It’s not like a little interlude.”