Illinois Governor Charged With Trying to Sell Obama's Senate Seat
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Federal prosecutors charged Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) yesterday with engaging in a series of illegal schemes intended to enrich himself, including an attempt to sell the Senate seat recently vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.
In conversations riddled with coarse language and blunt threats that the FBI recorded with telephone wiretaps and listening devices planted in his campaign office, the governor laid bare a "pay for play" culture that, according to prosecutors, began shortly after he took office in 2002 and continued until before sunrise yesterday, when FBI agents arrested him and John Harris, his chief of staff.
Beyond deliberations about filling the Senate seat, Blagojevich and Harris discussed withholding funding for a children's hospital project until its chief executive made campaign donations, investigators said. They allegedly pressured the owner of the Chicago Tribune to fire a critical editorial writer if the newspaper expected substantial state assistance for Wrigley Field, which is owned by the Tribune Co.
"Governor Blagojevich has been arrested in the middle of what we can only describe as a public corruption crime spree," U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said in announcing the charges yesterday. "The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave," he added, referring to the 19th-century president and Illinois politician.
In a state with a notable history of influence peddling, the allegations against the two-term governor and his chief of staff resounded across Chicago's insular political circles and among Washington's newly energized Democratic elites, who are busy planning the Obama inauguration. Obama, who once supported Blagojevich but had distanced himself from the governor in recent years, told reporters that he was "saddened" by the arrests. Fitzgerald emphasized that the case "makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever."
FBI agents targeted Blagojevich and Harris after secretly enlisting close associates, placing a bug in the governor's campaign office and wiretapping his home telephone, all with approval from Justice Department officials and a federal judge in the Northern District of Illinois.
Blagojevich, who turns 52 today, and Harris, 46, appeared in a Chicago federal courthouse yesterday afternoon to answer charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and solicitation of bribery. The charges carry maximum combined penalties of 30 years in prison.
Blagojevich was released after paying a $4,500 bond and agreeing to turn over his passport and a card entitling him to own a firearm. Wearing a blue-and-black jacket, pants with a reflective stripe, and sneakers, the former congressman appeared nervous and dejected, keeping his eyes down, stroking his chin and rubbing his face.
Fitzgerald said he had lain "awake at night worrying" that some of the governor's alleged plans would come to life, including the firing of John P. McCormick, a deputy editor of the Chicago Tribune's editorial page, who had angered state officials by advocating the governor's ouster. Tribune Co., in seeking to unload its Cubs baseball team, had been seeking state help to finance the sale of Wrigley Field, a move that could have saved the company more than $100 million in capital gains taxes, prosecutors said.
The court papers unsealed yesterday depict a race by the governor and his allies to collect more than $2.5 million in campaign money before year's end, when a new Illinois law barring contributions from people and companies with significant state contracts will take effect.
Troubled by the "feverish" attempts to accelerate fundraising, authorities intensified Operation Board Games, their five-year investigation of kickbacks and government favor trading in Illinois government. They received permission to listen in on telephone conversations at the governor's campaign office and later at his home.
Investigators say they overheard Blagojevich and his senior advisers scrambling to raise money and dispense favors, especially Obama's coveted Senate seat. The governor has the sole authority to appoint a successor. The men brazenly discussed favors Blagojevich could receive in exchange for naming certain people to the post -- using it to leverage an Obama appointment to an ambassadorship or head of the Department of Health and Human Services or to win a lucrative job heading a charitable organization such as the Red Cross.