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.
"You might have thought in that environment that pay-to-play would slow down," Fitzgerald told reporters. "The opposite happened. It sped up."
Fitzgerald, best known outside Chicago as the special prosecutor who convicted vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby of perjury after the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, called this "a moment of truth for Illinois."
Beyond the work of federal agents, he said ordinary people should end their silence.
"What it tells us is that it's great to have the FBI and their colleagues working on this, but we need people in the public to stand up and say, 'Enough,' " Fitzgerald said. "And if people start hearing things that they feel are untoward or improper, we need them to come forward."
For someone looking to understand the hidden rules that stubbornly survive in Springfield and some Chicago precincts, the court papers unsealed yesterday reveal Blagojevich's own guiding principles, such as they were. As agents sat rapt at their listening posts -- Fitzgerald said "even the most cynical . . . were shocked" -- the governor said he would use three criteria in filling Obama's seat: "Our legal situation, our personal situation, my political situation. This decision, like every other one, needs to be based upon that. Legal. Personal. Political."
In another conversation, he said of the possibility that Obama friend Valerie Jarrett wanted the Senate seat: "It is not coming for free. . . . It's got to be good stuff for the people of Illinois and good for me."
Blagojevich's definition of what was good for him suggested that he presumed national politics worked as things in Illinois did. He imagined Obama, who said he knew nothing of the ruminations, appointing him to a Cabinet post or an ambassadorship.
At one point, Blagojevich said he liked the idea of being named energy secretary because it is "the one that makes the most money." He wondered about heading the Red Cross and talked with several people about Obama leaning on Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and others to put up $10 million to $15 million for a nonprofit foundation.
"I want to make money," said Blagojevich, who turns 52 Wednesday.
The affidavit, signed by FBI agent Daniel W. Cain, reads like a how-to guide for trading state business for political cash. When the state allocated $8 million to pay doctors at Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital, Blagojevich demanded a $50,000 campaign contribution from the hospital's chief executive, it says.
When discussing whether to spend $1.8 billion to build new express lanes on the Illinois Tollway, Blagojevich said that a friendly lobbyist would approach a concrete supplier and demand $500,000 for the governor's Friends of Blagojevich campaign fund, the affidavit says.
If the concrete man paid up, Blagojevich allegedly told the witness, the $1.8 billion project might become even bigger. But the money had to arrive by the end of the year -- ahead of the new ethics rules.
"That's the governor of Illinois," Fitzgerald said.
Staff writer Kari Lydersen contributed to this report.