Obama in center of scandal
Illinois Governor in Corruption Scandal
The governor of Illinois brazenly put up for sale his appointment of Barack Obama’s successor in the United States Senate, federal prosecutors said Tuesday, according to New York Times.
In recorded conversations with advisers, the governor, Rod R. Blagojevich, seemed alternately boastful, flip and spiteful about the Senate choice, which he crassly likened at one point to that of a sports agent shopping around a free agent for the steepest price, a federal affidavit showed. At times, he even weighed aloud appointing himself to the job, the prosecutors said.
“I’ve got this thing,” Mr. Blagojevich said on one recording, according to the affidavit, “and it’s [expletive] golden. And I’m just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing. I’m not going to do it. And I can always use it. I can parachute me there.”
Mr. Blagojevich (pronounced bluh-GOY-uh-vich), a Democrat, was arrested at his home at dawn Tuesday on charges of conspiracy and soliciting bribes. A lawyer for the governor said he denied any wrongdoing.
The corruption case extended well beyond the Senate appointment, stunned even a state that thought it had seen every brand of political corruption, created grave doubt over how or when President-elect Obama’s successor in the Senate might now be selected, and left many wondering who else might yet be implicated in Mr. Blagojevich’s brash negotiations, which were captured in phone calls recorded by federal agents since before Election Day.
“The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave,” Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the United States attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, said in announcing the arrest of Mr. Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris.
Under state law, Mr. Blagojevich is assigned to name a replacement for Mr. Obama, who recently resigned as Illinois’ junior senator with two years remaining in his term.
Mr. Obama, who Mr. Fitzgerald said was not implicated in the case, sought to put distance between himself and the governor during brief remarks on Tuesday afternoon and later in an interview with The Chicago Tribune, saying he did not discuss his Senate seat with Mr. Blagojevich.
“I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so we were not — I was not aware of what was happening,” Mr. Obama said. “And as I said, it’s a sad day for Illinois. Beyond that, I don’t think it’s appropriate to comment.”
Throughout his career, Mr. Obama has adroitly straddled the state’s bruising politics, forming alliances with some old-style politicians even as he pressed for ethics reform. But Mr. Obama had long been estranged from the governor, even though some in his political circle have had relationships with both of them, including Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, and Emil Jones Jr., the retiring State Senate president and a longtime mentor.
The federal accusations against Mr. Blagojevich go beyond the Senate question into what the authorities here described as a “political corruption crime spree.”
The governor is accused of racing to solicit millions of dollars in donations from people with state business before an ethics law bars such behavior in January, and threatening to rescind state money this fall from businesses, including a Chicago hospital for children, whose executives refused to give him money. He is also accused of putting pressure on The Chicago Tribune to fire members of its editorial board who had criticized him or lose the governor’s help on the possible sale of Wrigley Field, which is owned by the Tribune Company and is home to the Chicago Cubs.
Mr. Blagojevich, who looked somber during an afternoon appearance in federal court, was released from custody on a $4,500 recognizance bond after surrendering his passport. A hearing in federal court will be held in January to determine whether there is probable cause to go forward with the charges.
Sheldon Sorosky, his lawyer, later told reporters that the governor was “very surprised and certainly feels that he did not do anything wrong.”
According to the affidavit, in more than a month of recorded phone calls at his home and campaign office, Mr. Blagojevich considered numerous ways that he might personally and politically gain from the various Senate candidates, none of whom were identified by name in the court filing. One possible choice might be able to help him secure a post with the new administration as secretary of health and human services or energy; a “three way” deal involving a union and a candidate might win him a union leadership post; or perhaps, he could secure the high-paying helm of a nonprofit organization that could be created for him.
Mr. Blagojevich, whose administration has for years been known to be the subject of a federal corruption investigation, also spoke of his family’s financial woes and said he had three criteria for selecting the new senator: “Our legal situation, our personal situation, my political situation — this decision, like every other one, needs to be based on that.”
In several possible situations, the affidavit says, Mr. Blagojevich seemed to refer to plans already under way to make money or win a job (for him or his wife, Patti) in exchange for a particular Senate selection, raising the specter that there might be others, including some of the Senate candidates, who were participating or at least considering participating in such deals.
Even before Mr. Obama was elected president, Mr. Blagojevich was recorded telling an adviser on Oct. 31 that he was giving greater consideration to one candidate (described only as Senate Candidate 5) after an approach by “an associate” of that candidate who offered to raise $500,000 for Mr. Blagojevich, while another emissary of the Senate hopeful offered to raise $1 million. “We were approached ‘pay to play,’ ” Mr. Blagojevich said on a recording.
But prosecutors, who have made it clear that the investigation is continuing and who issued a plea on Tuesday for people to come forward with information, warned against drawing any conclusions about the true roles of candidates or anyone else in Mr. Blagojevich’s plans. And they emphasized repeatedly that the affidavit made “no allegations against the president-elect whatsoever.”
Several people among the half-dozen whose names have been suggested publicly as Senate possibilities did not respond to requests for interviews. Others, including Representative Jesse L. Jackson Jr. and Mr. Jones of the State Senate, who has been one of Mr. Blagojevich’s few allies in Springfield, issued statements expressing shock over the accusations, but they did not answer requests for interviews.
“If these allegations are proved true, I am outraged by the appalling, pay-to-play schemes hatched at the highest levels of our state government,” said Mr. Jackson, who had openly expressed interest in Mr. Obama’s old job and who met with Mr. Blagojevich, whom he is not known to be close to, for 90 minutes on Monday afternoon to discuss the post.
In November, Mr. Blagojevich asserted to an adviser, the affidavit says, that he knew whom Mr. Obama wanted named as his successor — described in the affidavit as Senate Candidate 1, a reference apparently to Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama — but cursed him in apparent frustration that “they’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation.”
Ms. Jarrett later took her name out of consideration for the post. But at one point, Mr. Blagojevich spoke to an official at the Service Employees International Union, the affidavit says, with the “understanding that the union official was an emissary” to discuss the possibility of a “three-way deal” that would put Ms. Jarrett in the Senate seat, Mr. Blagojevich at the leadership of Change to Win, a union-affiliated group, and “in exchange, the president-elect could help Change to Win with its legislative agenda.”
Officials at the service union said they had no reason to believe that any union officials were involved in wrongdoing, and a spokesman for Change to Win said the group had had no involvement or discussion with Mr. Blagojevich. “The idea of a position at Change to Win was totally an invention of the governor,” the spokesman said.
Ms. Jarrett could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Mr. Obama’s advisers made the decision on Tuesday essentially to remain silent and ignored criticism for doing so from Republicans, a strategy reminiscent of how the Bush administration reacted to the last high-profile case of Mr. Fitzgerald, who was the special prosecutor in the C.I.A. leak case. Still, David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, issued a statement late Tuesday saying he had misspoken in comments he made in November that now seemed to contradict Mr. Obama’s assertions that he had no contact with Mr. Blagojevich in the conversations over a replacement.
“I know he’s talked to the governor,” Mr. Axelrod said in an interview with “Fox News Sunday” on Nov. 23. “And there are a whole range of names, many of which have surfaced.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Axelrod said he had been wrong. “They did not then or at any time discuss the subject,” according to his statement.
The arrest leaves the fate of Mr. Obama’s vacant Senate seat in limbo. Mr. Blagojevich, who may remain in office while charged, still has the power to name a successor to Mr. Obama, though Illinois political experts suggested that the Legislature might move quickly to impeach him — and questioned whether anyone would want an appointment so tainted.
Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said, “No appointment by this governor under these circumstances could produce a credible replacement.”
Mr. Jones said he would call the State Senate back into session to write a law to schedule a special election for the seat.
And Illinois Republicans called for Mr. Blagojevich to resign immediately “for the good of the state,” a possibility that would put Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat who has clashed with Mr. Blagojevich for years and who said Tuesday that they had last spoken in the summer of 2007, in charge.
Of the accusations against Mr. Blagojevich, Mr. Quinn said he was astonished, adding, “Pray for every person and every family in Illinois.”
Mr. Blagojevich arrived in office in 2002, portraying himself as a fresh break from the investigations that had plagued the state for years — and most recently from the investigation and eventual conviction of Gov. George Ryan, a Republican whom Mr. Blagojevich succeeded.
Last month, Mr. Blagojevich said that despite his regular criticism of Mr. Ryan over the years, he believed that President Bush should commute Mr. Ryan’s 6 ½-year sentence even though he had served less than 13 months. It would be a “fine decision,” Mr. Blagojevich said.
On Monday, Mr. Blagojevich, who was visiting a factory sit-in here in Chicago, said he was unconcerned about reports of the corruption investigations that have swirled around his administration since at least 2005 and have swept up 14 other people.
“I don’t believe there’s any cloud that hangs over me,” he told reporters at the factory. “I think there’s nothing but sunshine hanging over me.”
Mr. Blagojevich seemed not to mind earlier news reports that his conversations had been recorded. “I should say if anybody wants to tape my conversations, go right ahead, feel free to do it,” he said, though he added that those who carried out such recordings sneakily, “I would remind them that it kind of smells like Nixon and Watergate.”