By Jill Smolowe
Updated November 14, 2005 12:00 PM

As he made plain during an Oct. 28 press conference, when he likened his role in the probe into the leaked identity of a CIA officer to an umpire who gets sand thrown in his eyes, Patrick Fitzgerald is a prosecutor who enjoys baseball analogies. But not everything about the guy is a home run.

Consider the cat. Back in the 1990s, when he was a workaholic assistant U.S. attorney, Fitzgerald got it in his head that he would like the companionship of a pet when he returned home at night to his Brooklyn apartment. Friends say that after he was turned down by a family advertising free kittens, he flew in a cat from Miami. That worked out fine—except when Fitzgerald went on days-long business trips, leaving behind huge bags of kitty food. “The cat put on 60 lbs.,” jokes Andy McCarthy, a former colleague and friend.

Though such stories are intended to add a touch of human weakness to Fitzgerald’s Eliot Ness-ness, they highlight one indisputable fact about the unmarried, 44-year-old special counsel: He works very, very hard for his indictments. Last week, after a two-year investigation, he brought five charges of perjury, false statements and obstruction of justice against I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, for allegedly not telling the truth about who leaked the identity of covert CIA officer Valerie Wilson—whose husband had openly challenged the Bush Administration—to a number of reporters (see box). Libby, who is scheduled for arraignment Nov. 3, had little choice but to resign, and Fitzgerald’s investigation of other White House officials continues. Still, pundits on both sides of Washington’s bitter political divide have said that Fitzgerald did his work without grandstanding. “I totally disagree with the outcome, but he conducted a leak-free investigation,” says Mary Matalin, a former adviser to Cheney.

For the Brooklyn-born son of Irish immigrants, the Libby charges are only the latest in a 13-year streak of high-profile—sometimes dangerous—cases. Three years after graduating Harvard Law School in 1985, he joined the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, where he won convictions of, among other international terrorists, blind sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman and his accomplices for organizing the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Since his 2001 appointment as the U.S. Attorney in Chicago, he has convicted a supporter of Mayor Richard Daley, a Democrat, for fraud, and is currently prosecuting former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, for corruption. Although some attorneys in his field feel he sometimes overreaches in his zeal to make a case, others note his political neutrality. “He takes on Republicans and Democrats,” says Dick Simpson, a political-science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “He doesn’t harbor ambitions to be a politician, so he doesn’t care.”

He does, however, care deeply about his brother, two sisters and parents. When he was working round-the-clock on the WTC investigation, he asked then-NYPD detective Tommy Corrigan to meet him at an address in Brooklyn. “Wound up it was his dad’s house,” says Corrigan. “His father had Alzheimer’s, and he and his sisters had been taking turns taking care of him.” After Patrick Sr., a Manhattan doorman, died in 1998, Fitzgerald repaired to his family’s farm in County Clare, Ireland, finding solace in traditional music and pubs.

Since then he has taken time off only for annual summer outings—Whitewater rafting, bungee jumping, mountain climbing—with his pals. “He likes to take on challenges,” says former U.S. Attorney David Kelley, who has vacationed with him in Australia and other parts of the globe. “He’s not a great swimmer, yet he forced himself to learn how to scuba dive.” Some friends wish he would make more time for dating. “Find him someone!” says former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, who was Fitzgerald’s boss in Manhattan. “He’d be a great catch!” As for what drives Fitzgerald 24/7 on his cases, Tony Bouza, a friend since their days at Amherst College says, “It’s really simple: He wants to know the truth.”

Jill Smolowe. Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C.