Michael J. Anderson was staking out the front entrance of a Washington-area Ritz-Carlton in 2005 when he saw something stunning even for a veteran FBI agent accustomed to brazen public corruption schemes.
With an undercover video camera rolling, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson got out of a car near the hotel's front entrance, popped the trunk and retrieved a leather briefcase stuffed with $100,000 that the popular Louisiana congressman thought was bribe money. The cash, which was later found wrapped in tin foil and hidden amid frozen pie crusts in Jefferson's freezer, was actually part of an elaborate FBI sting.
As Anderson watched the exchange from a car across the street, he turned to his rookie partner to make sure he appreciated the moment.
"I said, 'Perry, you'll probably never see this again in your FBI career,' " Anderson recalled with a laugh in an interview this week with the Tribune.
A decade after leading the wide-ranging investigation that netted Jefferson 13 years in federal prison, Anderson is set to take over Oct. 19 as special agent in charge of the FBI field office in Chicago, a city that Anderson described as "target rich" when it comes to public corruption cases.
"Chicago has always been in the forefront, unfortunately," Anderson said in his first comments since his promotion was announced in September. "The corruption in Chicago is very diverse. Federal, state, municipal and law enforcement, you name it."
Anderson, 48, who has spent the last three years as head of the bureau's New Orleans division, will oversee about 850 agents, analysts and other support staff, more than twice the number he had under his command in Louisiana. He succeeds Robert Holley, who reached the mandatory age for retirement in August after a little less than two years on the job.
While public corruption has been the focus of much of his 20-year career, Anderson arrives in Chicago at a time of increasing pressure on the FBI to tackle the violence afflicting Chicago. Anderson said the FBI is continuing to shift resources — both agents and money — to violent crime as the issue has risen to the national forefront.
Traditionally, the FBI has gone after major cases that take down a street gang's hierarchy or cartel-level drug distribution networks. But as gangs have fragmented and the motives behind the violence have shifted from drug turf battles to slights on social media, the FBI has learned to deploy resources more strategically, with agents assisting Chicago police and other local authorities in going after violent offenders on the street, Anderson said.
"Where the FBI had drawn real strict lines in the past, those lines are more blurred now," Anderson said. "It's something the FBI has got to participate in. ... We are in for a penny, in for a pound."
Although the agency has far fewer "boots on the ground" than Chicago police, the FBI can offer crucial assistance, including interviews of witnesses or suspects, evidence response teams, cellphone analyses, wiretaps or other technology that can help connect the dots, Anderson said.
"If the Chicago police need assistance on a double homicide, we will make it work and provide it," said Anderson, who on Wednesday attended a national violence summit in Washington that included U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon of Chicago and Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy.
A native of Alexandria, Minn., Anderson graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in accounting and earned a law degree at Southwestern University in Los Angeles. Both areas of expertise have proved to be valuable in putting together complex corruption cases, he said.
He cut his teeth as a young agent in Miami, where the constant flow of drugs and cash meant someone was always on the take. As a member of the public corruption squad there, one of Anderson's first major investigations involved the $1 million bribery of several jurors who acquitted two Miami drug kingpins, Anderson said.
"I caught the bug back in the mid-90s, and it's kind of stuck with me," he said.
In his climb up the ranks, Anderson has led investigations into superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and government fraud surrounding that city's reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina.
Along the way he has ruffled some feathers. Congressional leaders were incensed in 2006 when FBI agents executed a search warrant at Jefferson's Capitol Hill office — an unprecedented raid that then-U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert said crossed the line of separation of powers.
Anderson told the Tribune he thought the raid sent a vital message to those in power that there was no politician — and no place — above the law.
"It was important to show that when crimes are committed and there is evidence, whether it is in the House or the Senate, if you have a valid warrant then it should be executed," he said.
In 2003, while supervising investigations into public corruption and government fraud for the Washington field office, Anderson rewrote the bureau's Public Corruption Field Guide, the operations manual for running a corruption probe that he said used to read more like a "a coffee-table book," not the how-to guide that he thought agents needed.
The field guide covers checklists for everything from how to keep a case covert to how to arrange bribe payments in a sting without exposing an investigation to arguments of entrapment, he said. Some of it may seem elemental, but in public corruption cases, high-profile defendants often bring powerhouse lawyers, so agents need to be absolutely sure they are "in line with policy," Anderson said.
"The important thing on bribes is there needs to be a demand before the money comes out," Anderson said. "You don't want your informant walking in with a wad of money and waving it around. Have (the target) ask for it first."