By Dana Milbank
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Move over, Client No. 9. The capital has a new man of mystery: Senate Candidate 5.
Not since Eliot Spitzer did his business at the Mayflower Hotel has there been so much excitement over an unnamed person in a federal criminal case. Client 9 may have paid for sex, but Candidate 5 was willing to pay for a Senate seat -- or so claimed Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, according to the feds.
The guessing game didn't last very long yesterday before Candidate 5 more or less outed himself.
"I did not know the process had been corrupted," Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) pleaded at a televised afternoon news conference. "I did not know that the governor and his cronies were attempting to use the process to extort money and favors in a brazen pay-to-play scheme."
The son of the civil rights leader performed all the usual rituals for a man suddenly in the middle of a scandal. He professed his innocence ("I am not a target of the investigation"), his humanity (he choked up while speaking of a supportive text message from his sister), his willingness to cooperate with "the hardworking men and women of the United States attorney's office," and, of course, his refusal to take questions on advice of counsel.
Of all the people involved in what U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald termed a "political corruption crime spree," the public figure in the most awkward place after Blagojevich is probably Jackson -- the guy whose "emissary" allegedly told Blagojevich that he would raise $1 million for the governor if Candidate 5 was appointed to the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama.
As the world now knows, the governor, whose alleged dishonesty was matched only by his profanity, was secretly recorded by federal investigators saying that the Senate seat is "a [expletive] valuable thing, you just don't give it away for nothing." Fitzgerald, in his news conference Tuesday, thoughtfully replaced each of the governor's obscenities with "bleep" or "bleeping."
According to the criminal complaint, Blagojevich told an associate that "we were approached 'pay to play' " by Candidate 5's emissary. "That, you know, he'd raise me 500 grand. An emissary came. Then the other guy would raise a million if I made [Candidate 5] a senator." After that, Blagojevich said he was "elevating" Candidate 5 under the belief that Candidate 5 would provide the governor with something "tangible up front."
It didn't take long for speculation to center on Jackson, as bilingual bulletins fingering the congressman crossed the news wires yesterday. "Abogado: Jesse Jackson Jr. es el 'Candidato 5,' " said one headline. House leaders ducked for cover. "I don't know anything," Majority Leader Steny Hoyer pleaded.
A dozen reporters camped outside Jackson's office on the fourth floor of the Rayburn House Office Building. Their wait for a glimpse of the lawmaker was made more comfortable by leather couches and armchairs from other offices that movers had temporarily placed in the hall. Jackson -- who for the moment had replaced Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel in the scandal spotlight -- tried to placate the media beast by saying a few words to the assembled mob and by offering to release a written statement.
But by mid-afternoon, he decided he had to face the cameras in the House TV studio -- and he made clear how bleeping mad he was about Blagojevich. Jackson was, in order of appearance, "shocked," "saddened," "appalled" and outraged.
He began with a bitter joke -- "The next time I introduce legislation, I hope all of you show up" -- but nobody laughed. His mouth was dry and he licked his lips often as he sought to exonerate himself. "I reject and denounce pay-to-play politics and have no involvement whatsoever in any wrongdoing," he asserted. "I never sent a message or an emissary to the governor to make an offer or to plead my case or to propose a deal about the U.S. Senate seat, period."
It had to be a low moment in Jackson's career, but he was resourceful enough to deliver a bit of a stump speech for the Senate seat, which now will probably be awarded by special election rather than by corrupt governor. "Of those members of the United States Congress who have been mentioned as potential senators from Illinois, I have served longer than every one of them, except for Congressman Luis Gutierrez," Jackson said, departing from the prepared statement his aides handed out. "In the 13 years that I've served in the Congress of the United States, I've only missed two votes."
The stump speech went on, covering health care, energy independence and education before Jackson thanked everybody from the Chicago Sun-Times to the Southtown Star for their endorsements.
Yes, Candidate 5 acknowledged, "federal law enforcement officials want to meet" with him, and yes, he sat down with Blagojevich for 90 minutes on Monday. But, for all of the governor's bleeping avarice, the two discussed only "my record, my qualifications."
Jackson fled the room in a tangle of reporters and photographers and ignored the questions shouted at him: "Are you running for office?" "Are you Candidate 5?"
"I am honored to serve the people of Illinois," was all he said as he fought his way to the elevator. One got the sense that Candidate 5's true sentiment, had he voiced it, would have required a bleep.