PEORIA — Whomever the Trump administration picks as the top federal prosecutor for central Illinois will likely have a significant effect on Peoria in the coming months.
That's the office prosecuting former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, and the one overseeing a grand jury inquiry into tax practices at Caterpillar Inc.
And a few central Illinois lawmakers will have a sizable say over the next few months in who that person is.
By longstanding tradition, the process of recommending those prosecutors — Illinois has three, one for the Northern District including Chicago and its suburbs; one for the 46-county Central District that includes Peoria as well as Rock Island, Bloomington, Springfield and Champaign; and one for the southern third of the state — to the White House for appointment and Senate confirmation falls to the senior member of the president's party in the state's congressional delegation. The same is true for federal judges when there are vacancies, and for federal marshals.
With no Republican senators from Illinois, the responsibility falls to the senior-most GOP congressman, Rep. John Shimkus of Collinsville. But he has been seeking input from others in the delegation, including — particularly for the Central District post — Reps. Darin LaHood of Peoria and Rodney Davis of Taylorville.
LaHood said Monday during an interview that with most of the counties in the district falling into his district or Davis', he understood that the two of them would "play a large role" alongside Shimkus in the discussion.
Already, LaHood said, that has included some broad meetings over the process and setting up a way for people to notify Shimkus' office of their interest online. He said that initial interviews of the applicants — who now number about a dozen — are likely to begin in the next six to eight weeks.
The goal, Shimkus' spokesman, Jordan Haverly, said, "is to recommend the best people possible to root out corruption and for the Northern District, to help stop the violence in Chicago."
It's an important decision to get right locally, LaHood emphasized.
"The U.S. attorney for the Central District has had a solid reputation of prosecutorial professionalism, integrity and high ethical standards," LaHood said, also adding fairness to the list and listing members of both parties who have held the job during the last two decades. "It's a very well-run office that has been independent and not political."
Independence is one of those traits that has paid dividends before. Then-U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald bypassed pressure to recommend someone well-connected or with deep Illinois ties and instead recommended Patrick Fitzgerald — no relation — for the busy Northern District prosecutor post. The outsider won approval from good-government advocates for aggressive prosecution of public corruption, and his staff scored convictions against Govs. George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich.
LaHood said it was important to run a fair, open process that is as "transparent as possible" in order to "make sure we cast a wide net as far as people who are interested."
There has been some political concern expressed about this appointment as well as others. U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, both Democrats, expressed concern in a letter earlier this month that Shimkus was following a different process than had been used in years past, and pointedly noted the reason they should be included in discussions.
Senators give their assent for nominees from their home states to be considered by signing off on a "blue slip" before any hearings, and can hold up selections.
The duo also objected to Gov. Bruce Rauner's inclusion in any discussions. The state's chief executive indicated during an interview with the Journal Star editorial board last month that his office was also a part of the discussions on appointments.
"...Recent history suggests we should avoid even an appearance of impropriety when it comes to the selection of federal prosecutors," Durbin and Duckworth said in their letter.
Haverly, Shimkus' spokesman, emphasized that the lawmaker intends to run "a collaborative and inclusive process."
That will include "input from his colleagues in the delegation, senators, the governor and other leaders around the state," he said.
Similar processes are in place for Northern and Southern district appointments, and Haverly said that announcements on who is being recommended will likely be made on a "rolling basis" rather than all at once, but that U.S. attorneys were likely to be among those selected first.
Chris Kaergard covers politics and government. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard.