Previous versions of this story, including the one appearing in this morning's edition of The Washington Post, incorrectly referred to the criminal complaint unsealed yesterday against Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich as an indictment. Blagojevich (D) was arrested on corruption charges yesterday, but has not yet been indicted, which is a separate step in the legal process.
Obama Tries to Stay Out of Blagojevich Fray
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 arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on corruption charges 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 affidavit filed in connection with the criminal complaint against 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.