By Michael D. Shear and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
President-elect Barack Obama did his best to distance himself from the spectacular public drama playing out in his home town yesterday, refusing to talk about the indictment of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich during his only public appearance outside his Chicago transition offices.
Federal prosecutors said flatly that there is no evidence of involvement by the president-elect in allegations that Blagojevich (D) attempted to sell Obama's vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder.
But the conspiracy allegedly dreamed up by Blagojevich was an unwelcome development in Obama's transition to power, threatening something Obama has avoided throughout his career -- the taint of Chicago politics.
Obama was nurtured politically in the city, rising while scandal swirled around him but remaining largely untouched as governors, lawmakers and lobbyists went to jail. For years, rivals -- including Sen. John McCain and the GOP this year -- sought to tie him to Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a onetime friend and fundraiser who was convicted in June of fraud and bribery.
"This man has managed to dodge many a near-corruption bullet," said Richard Epstein, a University of Chicago law professor who has clashed with Obama in the past. "My hope is that he will be vindicated, as I think he will be."
By all accounts, Obama and Blagojevich are not close, though then-Sen. Obama endorsed his fellow Democrat's reelection bid in 2006.
"I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so I was not aware of what was happening," Obama told reporters as he emerged from a meeting with former vice president Al Gore yesterday. "It is a sad day for Illinois. Beyond that, I don't think it's appropriate to comment."
In a television interview last month, David Axelrod, a longtime Chicago political consultant who served as Obama's campaign strategist and will accompany him to the White House, said Obama had spoken to the governor about the Senate vacancy. But yesterday Axelrod issued a statement saying he had been "mistaken."
"They did not then or at any time discuss the subject," he said.
But Obama was dragged at least tangentially into the scandal by virtue of repeated references to him in the 76-page indictment of Blagojevich. In one section, prosecutors described a deal the governor envisioned involving himself, a union and Obama.
In a two-hour telephone conversation recorded by federal agents, Blagojevich's chief of staff suggested that "SEIU could help the President-elect with Rod Blagojevich's appointment of Senate Candidate 1 to the vacant Senate seat, Rod Blagojevich would obtain a position as the National Director of the Change to Win campaign, and SEIU would get something favorable from the President-elect in the future." The SEIU is the Service Employees International Union.
"Senate Candidate 1" is apparently a reference to Valerie Jarrett, since "Candidate 1" is described as a woman who withdrew her name from consideration. A close Obama friend who was initially a leading candidate to take his place in the Senate, Jarrett took her name out of contention last month and was named a senior White House adviser.
Nothing in the indictment suggests that Obama ever discussed any deal with Blagojevich. And in some places, Blagojevich is quoted by prosecutors as being frustrated with Obama's transition team.
"Blagojevich said he knows that the President-elect wants Senate Candidate 1 for the Senate seat," the indictment states, "but 'they're not willing to give me anything except appreciation. [Expletive] them.' "
Longtime observers of Chicago politics said they did not expect the probe to cause Obama serious problems as he enters the White House.
But that didn't stop Republicans from trying to use the Blagojevich news to highlight the governor's past ties to Obama. The Republican National Committee circulated a memo to reporters noting that the president-elect had "advised" Blagojevich and endorsed him for a second term.
South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson, a candidate to head the RNC, called on Obama's transition office to release any contacts between it and Blagojevich.
"If President-elect Obama is serious, he should immediately release all records of discussions about the appointment of Obama's successor that he and his transition team may have had with Governor Blagojevich or Governor Blagojevich's office," Dawson said in a statement.
The indictment spends considerable time detailing Blagojevich's dealings with Rezko in a series of illegal "pay to play" deals, based on testimony in Rezko's trial. It quotes the governor telling a planning board member that he should talk to Rezko, saying, "You stick with us and you will do very well for yourself."
In another section, the indictment describes Blagojevich receiving from Rezko an envelope with a donor's $25,000 check, followed by a conversation about the donor getting a position in his administration.