Behind the Blago Bust

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 10, 2008 8:01 AM

As an old Justice Department reporter, I've covered lots of indictments with lots of sleazy details about all manner of illegality.

But I've never seen a wilder batch of allegations than in yesterday's criminal complaint against Rod Blagojevich.

Trying to (allegedly) sell Obama's Senate seat! Trying to (allegedly) squeeze money from a children's hospital! Trying to (allegedly) get Chicago Tribune staffers fired by threatening to derail a deal by its bankrupt parent company to sell the Chicago Cubs! (Who says newspapers don't matter any more?)

You can't make this stuff up. No Hollywood studio would buy the script.

Not many states can boast that two straight governors got into legal trouble, but Illinois is a special case. George Ryan is still behind bars. A governor from the 1970s, Dan Walker, also went to prison.

It's hard to see how Blago, with his 13 percent approval rating, hangs on. Even if he manages to beat the rap, quotes from the wiretapped conversations--a Senate seat "is a [expletive] valuable thing, you just don't give it away for nothing"--are just devastating. As the state's federal prosecutor put it, quoting Blago: "I've got this thing and it's bleeping golden. I'm just not giving it up for bleeping nothing."

The more immediate question is who gets named to the Senate (presumably for free). Blagojevich is still governor and can still name Obama's replacement. Or, under existing law, he could step down, handing the hot potato to Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn (D). Late yesterday, the president of the Illinois State Senate said he will call a special session to pass legislation that would mandate holding a special election to fill Obama's seat.

At a presser with Al Gore yesterday, Obama said he was saddened and tried to cut the thing off without questions. The reporters weren't having it and kept shouting. The president-elect relented and took one question, saying he hadn't discussed the issue of his successor with Blago.

Although ABC's Jake Tapper notes that David Axelrod said last month, referring to his boss: "I know he's talked to the governor and there are a whole range of names many of which have surfaced, and I think he has a fondness for a lot of them." (Axelrod later issued a statement saying he was mistaken in that interview.)

Here's my report on the Tribune angle:

On Sept. 29, a Chicago Tribune editorial ripped Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich for his "notorious pay-to-play politics" and said the legislature should investigate whether to impeach him.

Five weeks later, Blagojevich told a deputy governor that they should target some of the paper's editorial page editors by telling Tribune Co. owner Sam Zell to "get rid of those people . . . Fire those [expletives]."

This, according to a criminal complaint unveiled yesterday, was no idle threat. According to secretly recorded phone conversations, the Democratic governor had his deputies convey a threat that Blagojevich would block Tribune's effort to sell the Chicago Cubs unless certain staffers were dismissed. An aide to the governor told him a Tribune adviser suggested that changes would be made at the editorial page. But the journalist targeted by Blagojevich, Deputy Editorial Page Editor John P. McCormick, was not fired.

At a time when media analysts question the continuing relevance of newspapers, prosecutors are charging Blagojevich with an extraordinary scheme to silence critics at the state's largest paper--even as they were urging editors not to blow the investigation with premature disclosures. And a day after Tribune Co. filed for bankruptcy, the charges raise new questions about the embattled tenure of Zell, the Chicago businessman who bought the media conglomerate last December.

Tribune said in a statement that "no one working for the company or on its behalf has ever attempted to influence staffing decisions at the Chicago Tribune or any aspect of the newspaper's editorial coverage as a result of conversations with officials in the governor's administration." Editor Gerould Kern said no one at the company complained to him about the editorials.

Former Tribune managing editor Jim Warren said that if Zell was apprised of the conversations, he was "a babe in the woods . . . in neither thinking he has a story or that he should be going to the U.S. attorney's office with this. He's essentially being extorted. Is there any suggestion in this complaint that Sam Zell was stricken with conscience or ran down to his newsroom [with the information]? No."

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, thanked Tribune editors for bowing to his request to hold for eight weeks--until Friday--a story that his office was wiretapping Blagojevich. Kern said he agreed to delay some stories, but not others, based on the paper's "larger obligation of citizenship."

As special counsel in the Valerie Plame leak investigation, Fitzgerald drew criticism for pressuring such journalists as Robert Novak, Tim Russert, Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller to testify about conversations with confidential administration sources. Miller, then with the New York Times, spent 85 days in an Alexandria jail before agreeing to testify.

Blagojevich seized on the fact that Tribune, in attempting to unload the Cubs, was seeking aid from the Illinois Finance Authority to ease the sale of the team's ballpark, Wrigley Field.

On Nov. 4, the complaint says, Blagojevich told his chief of staff, John Harris, that because of the impeachment editorials and the pending Cubs deal, an unnamed Tribune financial adviser should be told that "our recommendation is to fire all these [expletive] people, get 'em the [expletive] out of there and get us some editorial support." The governor said the next day that Harris should tell the adviser-whose identity is not known--that "before we go to the next level we need to have a discussion about what you guys are going to do about that newspaper." Harris, who was also charged yesterday, reported back that he had told the adviser "there is a risk that all of this is going to get derailed by your own editorial page."

On Nov. 11, Harris told Blagojevich that the adviser had said Zell "got the message and is very sensitive to the issue," and with budget cuts and a reorganization coming, "reading between the lines, he's going after the section." The governor's reaction: "That's fantastic."

Ten days later, Harris said he had told financial adviser that McCormick was "the most biased and unfair." Blagojevich agreed that McCormick was a "bad guy." But on Dec. 5, Blagojevich said: "What's the deal? . . . McCormick stays at the Tribune, huh?"

Clarence Page, an editorial board member, said the entire board was opposed to Blagojevich. He called McCormick "a tough-minded guy, a very good writer," adding: "It has to bring glee to a journalist's heart to know they've gotten under the saddle of our corrupt politicians."

McCormick said last night he was "gratified that I never heard anything about it, gratified" that the pressure "didn't work and gratified that the Tribune ran the editorials in the first place." He noted that the $150-million benefit being dangled on Wrigley Field was "a lot of enticement. I wish I could say that if someone offered me $150 million to fire some people, I would turn up my nose."

McCormick, who wrote many of the anti-Blagojevich editorials, said he had only met the governor at editorial board meetings. "We don't have a personal relationship. I've never been to his office. It was somewhat surprising."

Morning papers, starting with the NYT: "Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois was arrested by federal authorities on Tuesday morning on corruption charges, including an allegation that he conspired to effectively sell President-elect Barack Obama's seat in the United States Senate to the highest bidder."

Chicago Tribune: "An unflattering portrait depicting Illinois First Lady Patricia Blagojevich as a modern-day Lady Macbeth who plotted against her husband's perceived enemies and backed his corrupt schemes emerged in court documents connected to the governor's arrest Tuesday.

"Her alleged ambitions and brashness are outlined in a 76-page federal criminal complaint: She helped her husband hatch a plan to sell President-elect Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat. She angled to trade her husband's power for lucrative spots on corporate boards. And she unleashed an obscenity-filled tirade suggesting Tribune Co. ownership should 'just fire' Chicago Tribune editorial writers if the company wanted the state to help it unload Wrigley Field to ease its crushing debt. 'Hold up that [expletive] Cubs [expletive],' she is quoted as saying in the background as her husband talked on the phone, authorities alleged. '[Expletive] them.' "


Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell: "There has always been something a little off about Gov. Blagojevich.

"It's not just the way he swirls his hair across his brow, or his habit of channeling Elvis Presley.

"There's been a faint hint of sleaziness hanging over his head since he took office. We know that power corrupts, but Blagojevich must have gotten drunk off of power to stand accused of the level of corruption outlined in the federal complaint."

Even Karl Rove agreed on Fox that Obama is not directly touched, but the Washington Times goes with this headline: "Scandal Casts Cloud Over Obama Presidency."

"Authorities stressed that Mr. Obama was not involved in the far-flung corruption probe, but a 76-page FBI affidavit mentions a top Obama adviser who will be a senior White House staffer, a prominent labor union that worked for his candidacy, convicted felon and former Obama fundraiser Tony Rezko, and Washington-based consultants."

Time's Michael Scherer says the scandal "is going to continue to haunt Obama, not to mention Chicago's Democratic establishment where he built his roots. The President of the United States has a higher burden than just about any elected official anywhere. His staff will be called on by the press to account for all their conversations with Blagojevich and his aides. Obama will have to explain what he knew about these discussions. The bit players in the complaint, like the unnamed Senate Candidate 1 and Senate Candidate 5, will have to come forward and explain their involvement. If the investigation continues into next year, which seems likely, there may even be calls for the appointment of something like an independent counsel at the Justice Department to avoid any hint of political interference. Obama's staff and political allies may be forced to get attorneys of their own."

Slate's John Dickerson exmines the governor's psyche and what happens to the Senate pick:

"Blagojevich's phones were bugged for more than a month, which captured a lot of rich material and dark psychological terrain. While Blagojevich contemplated the string of difficulties and liabilities stemming from a three-year investigation into his administration, he was still confident enough to muse about a 2016 presidential campaign. He tried to leverage the power to appoint the next senator to replace President-elect Barack Obama into a job as Obama's secretary of health and human services. If that didn't work, he wanted Obama to name him an ambassador or help his wife get on some corporate boards in exchange for naming his preferred candidate to the post . . .

"After trying so hard to price the Senate seat at top dollar, Blagojevich may now have made it almost worthless. The 78-page rap against the sitting governor throws the question of the Illinois Senate seat into turmoil. If Blagojevich takes the Eliot Spitzer route and resigns, the lieutenant governor gets to name the pick, and the race is back on. But what if he's as delusional as the wiretaps make him seem? That would suggest he'll take the Ted Stevens route and stay in office while he fights the charges . . .

"What senator would want to have 'D-Blago' after his name, to be forever tainted by having been appointed by a man whose corruption appears to have been so splendid?"

Matt Cooper, who was embroiled in the Valerie Plame probe, offers Blagojevich advice on dealing with Fitzgerald.

Meanwhile, Chicago Sun-Times gossip columnist Michael Sneed "was allegedly the guv's go-to reporter for planting fake rumors designed to help his scheme to extort money in exchange for Obama's replacement in the Senate," Gawker reports.

According to the criminal complaint, Blagojevich told his spokesman to leak to a Sun-Times columnist that Senate Candidate 2 was in the running for Obama's seat, in order to send a "message" to the president-elect.

On Nov. 7, Sneed wrote: "The latest from Blagoville: Is Gov. Rod Blagojevich toying with tossing Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who wants Blago's job?

"- It's his pick . . . and it would get rid of a rival.

"- It may endear him to powerful House Speaker Mike Madigan, Lisa's dad, who is Blago's political foe."

So that's how it's done.

Do the Dems have a corruption problem? Hot Air's Ed Morrissey thinks so:

"In the matter of Rod Blagojevich, has anyone else noticed that the Democrats have a losing streak in governors? Over the last four years, they now have three of them charged with crimes in office. Jim McGreevey resigned from his post in New Jersey after appointing his gay lover to run the state's Homeland Security effort, which distracted people from the pay-to-play scandals that had begun to dog his administration. Eliot Spitzer had to resign after federal investigators discovered that he utilized the same kind of call-girl networks that he targeted for state investigations. Now Rod Blagojevich finds himself in federal custody for official corruption.

"That doesn't mean that Republicans don't have a history in governorships. George Ryan preceded Blagojevich and retired before he got indicted, and now he's serving time in prison. John Rowland got bounced out of Connecticut's governorship for wire and tax fraud. Those happened two presidential cycles ago, though, and since then the Democrats -- who won the 2006 midterms on the basis of official corruption -- have lost three major state governors.

"That 2006 election allowed voters to punish Republicans for the crimes of people like Randy 'Duke' Cunningham, Bob Ney, and the peccadilloes of Mark Foley. Will they do the same in 2010 after this streak? Republicans lost Ohio after the scandals that surrounded Bob Taft. Can Republicans rebound in Illinois, New Jersey, and New York as the party of reform?"

Well, they already have in Louisiana with the defeat of William Jefferson, the indicted congressman who had 90,000 bucks stashed in his freezer. I always wonder how these indicted guys think they can get reelected. And Morrissey seems to have omitted the name of the recently deposed Ted Stevens.

Obama doing well in an LAT poll: "Nearly eight in 10 approve of the way Obama has handled his transition to the White House and nearly three-quarters approve of his Cabinet picks."

And this just in--Joe the Plumber says he was appalled by McCain and wanted to get off his bus. Now he tells us?

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