Prosecutor Says Blagojevich's Recorded Comments 'Shocked' Even Veteran Agents

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

CHICAGO. Dec. 9 -- As the noose tightened, month by month, Gov. Rod Blagojevich seemed to know he was in trouble.

"You gotta be careful how you express that and assume everybody's listening. The whole world's listening," Blagojevich said in a conversation secretly taped by the FBI. "I would do it in person," he said to someone else. "I would not do it on the phone."

Yet the governor kept talking on the telephone, and the FBI kept listening. In hours of captured conversations, he continued to spin out one outlandish idea after another, all of them designed to line his pockets or preserve his political career, and all of them illegal, the criminal complaint against him alleges.

Among the allegations: The Democratic governor, whose popularity slumped to 13 percent in a recent poll, used his clout to try to have newspaper editorial writers fired. He demanded campaign contributions in return for political favors. And when the law said he alone could appoint a successor to replace President-elect Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate, Blagojevich saw it as a "golden" moneymaking chance, saying, "I'm just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing."

Blagojevich -- elected to clean up the mess left by his now-jailed Republican predecessor -- was led away from his home in handcuffs Tuesday to face influence-peddling charges. With his arrest, Illinois, which has proudly laid claim to the next president of the United States, will still be known for something else: undeniable corruption.

"If it isn't the most corrupt state in the United States," said Robert Grant, head of the FBI's Chicago office, "it's certainly one hell of a competitor."

Blagojevich, a two-term governor who imagined himself a future president, is accused of treading a familiar path of backroom dealing and influence peddling that has marked Chicago and Illinois since long before Eliot Ness. But even in Chicago, his brazenness -- captured on two bugs in his campaign office and one on his home telephone -- left people shaking their heads.

"It's just astounding -- the very arrogance," said Cynthia Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and a close observer of state politics. "And yesterday he was saying there's not a cloud in the sky."

Blagojevich's loose lips, as described by prosecution witnesses and the FBI, are all the more surprising because of his own rapid trajectory following politicians who profited from their offices only to be brought down.

When he won the governor's office in 2002, he succeeded George Ryan, a Republican soon convicted of influence peddling. When he was elected to Congress in 1996, he took the seat of Dan Rostenkowski, a Democrat convicted of embezzlement and later imprisoned.

Since then, many of Blagojevich's friends and supporters have been indicted, and some convicted. Witness after witness has described in open court illicit plans to wrest money from people who wanted to do business with the state. And they described Blagojevich, who steadfastly denied wrongdoing, as the man at the top of the pyramid.

As U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald and his team of prosecutors spent five years building the "Operation Board Games" case that has led to charges against 15 people, the Illinois legislature created new ethics rules set to take effect Jan. 1. According to the affidavit filed yesterday, Blagojevich was racing the clock, trying to shake down businesses for campaign contributions before the rules changed.

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