By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"The trick . . . is how do you conduct indirectly . . . a negotiation," the governor told Harris in an intercepted conversation Nov. 4, the day of the presidential election.
The following day, the two discussed employment options at private foundations that Blagojevich said are "heavily dependent on federal aid" and on which the White House might have the most "influence," investigators said.
"I've got this thing and it's [expletive] golden and uh, uh, I'm just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing," the governor told an unnamed adviser in a Nov. 5 call the government taped. "And I can always use it. I can parachute me there."
Blagojevich operated under mounting financial pressure and sought a way for him and his wife, Patti, to profit by making as much as $300,000 a year, the documents said. The couple have two young daughters.
One candidate for the Senate seat, described in court filings only as Candidate 5, promised through an associate to help the governor raise money for a possible reelection bid, Blagojevich said Dec. 4 on government tapes. "We were approached 'pay to play,' " the governor said of the alleged approach by the associate to Candidate 5. "That, you know, he'd raise me 500 grand. An emissary came. Then the other guy would raise a million, if I made [Candidate 5] a senator."
The court filings indicate that Blagojevich and his political team consulted with at least one unnamed person who advised Obama after the November election. At other times, though, the governor used profanities to describe Obama, who he said would not give him anything more than appreciation for picking a Senate candidate to his liking, according to the criminal complaint.
At another point, Blagojevich and his associates allegedly discussed whether they had the power to make an interim appointment for the House seat that will be vacated by Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D), who will become Obama's White House chief of staff, and whether they could secure fundraising help for themselves as part of the process, according to the court papers.
The charges yesterday came in the form of a criminal complaint, based on a sworn statement from 22-year FBI veteran Daniel W. Cain. By using the technique, law enforcement officials were able to share more details about their investigation and the conversations they captured than would normally appear in a federal grand jury indictment, according to former prosecutors who reviewed the document.
FBI agents were "thoroughly disgusted and revolted by what they heard," Robert D. Grant, the FBI special agent in charge, told reporters.
The new wiretap evidence supplemented a long-running case authorities had been building against top Illinois officials.
The complaint cited testimony by several financiers with Democratic connections at the corruption trial earlier this year of Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who had raised money for Blagojevich and Obama and worked on real estate deals with Blagojevich's wife. Three witnesses told the jury in Rezko's trial that they had crafted lists of political jobs or state contracts they hoped to win in exchange for campaign contributions to Blagojevich. The FBI later obtained a list created by Friends of Blagojevich that itemizes donors and amounts the campaign was seeking.
The case once again thrusts Fitzgerald, Chicago's U.S. attorney, into the spotlight at the intersection of politics and law enforcement. The New York native won the conviction last year of former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby in a case that centered on the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson's identity. President Bush later commuted Libby's prison sentence.
One legal source who has advised the Obama campaign suggested last month that the new president might keep Fitzgerald, a Bush appointee, in the U.S. attorney job. Fitzgerald is a political independent.
Staff writers Peter Slevin and Kari Lydersen in Chicago and Shailagh Murray in Washington and research editor Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.