By Juliet Eilperin
"He's a man who never wanted to be in politics," Schippers said yesterday. "He felt he owed it to the country to get involved in politics."
At 68, Schippers is entering the nation's political fray for the first time as the House Judiciary Committee's chief investigator. The post itself is controversial: Democrats suspect that Schippers's hire, which Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) announced late last week, marks the opening salvo in an impeachment crusade. Republicans say the Chicago lawyer will oversee the review of the Justice Department in connection with the agency's first authorization in nearly two decades, but acknowledge privately that Schippers could also analyze any documents forwarded by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
"I don't seek this, I didn't seek this, and it's something that has to be done," he said in his first interview since he was appointed.
Though he declined to discuss his new job, Schippers is more than willing to expound on his view of the law, which he teaches at Loyola University: You should never pummel witnesses for the other side if you know they're telling the truth. He once wrote a hostile witness, commending his testimony -- because Schippers knew he was telling the truth. And he has defended men accused of sexual harassment as well as represented a woman charging sexual harassment.
"My philosophy as a defense lawyer is not to get a not-guilty verdict, it's to make sure that your client gets a fair trial," Schippers said. "You play it according to the rules."
Chicago defense lawyer George Cotsirilos, who has opposed Schippers in court, called him "a man of total integrity. He will be fair to everyone concerned."
At the same time, his former allies and adversaries warn that any witness forced to face Schippers in a hearing has much to fear. "Whoever he puts in front of him is going to have a hard time, because he's extremely hard-nosed," said Eddie Jenson, another Chicago defense lawyer.
A compact, ruddy-faced man with a neatly trimmed white beard and an easy smile, Schippers is blunt about his courtroom tactics. "My method of cross-examination is very simple," he said. "I go for the throat, I go for the jugular, and I listen to every word that the witness says."
The Cook County Democrat, who once ran, unsuccessfully, for Illinois Supreme Court, might seem like an unusual pick for Hyde, a Republican. They became friends when the two of them served on a panel investigating judicial corruption in Illinois. Schippers has no Hill or constitutional-law expertise, and established his reputation in the mid-1960s as chief of the Justice Department's task force examining organized crime in Chicago.
That prosecutor/investigator experience apparently was key for Schippers, who will receive a $130,000 salary. "We're all concerned about what papers are dropped on us by the independent counsel," explained one GOP source. "He knows what's relevant."
A Chicago native, Schippers took on foes like alleged mob boss Sam Giancana after wading through a deluge of FBI forms. After assigning investigators to each respective vice, the strike force amassed a wealth of knowledge about the mob. "It was only after we had collected all this information, without knowing it, we were building a pyramid which got to the top," he said, adding he always focused on "what is evidence -- you don't indict unless you're willing to go to trial the next day."
U.S. Court of Appeals Judge William Bauer, who has witnessed Schippers's work from both the trial and the appellate bench, said his effectiveness as an advocate stems from his ability to determine what matters most. "He knows the wheat from the chaff," Bauer said.
That kind of discretion could apply equally well to both Schippers's immediate task -- conducting a thorough review of an agency employing more than 100,000 people -- and any potential referral from Starr.
No matter what his task, Schippers vowed, he can remain above political pressures. His other role model besides Jefferson is his grandfather, an Irishman who made a fortune in the sewer business until he turned down a monopoly on government contracts in exchange for a kickback to the political establishment. He lost his business and ended up working at a paint store.
"He died of lead poisoning," he said. "But he wouldn't give in."
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