Blagojevich Aide Resigns; Timing of Charges Stirs Legal Debate
Saturday, December 13, 2008
The chief of staff to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) resigned yesterday after wiretapped conversations revealed his role in what prosecutors describe as a sweeping "pay-to-play" scandal, a case that has grown more complicated and legally controversial since the two men were arrested before sunrise Tuesday.
John Harris's resignation came as pressure intensified for Blagojevich to step down and for President-elect Barack Obama's transition team to disclose details of its contacts with the governor's office about the selection of a successor to Obama in the Senate. Blagojevich and Harris are accused of planning to sell the vacant seat to the highest bidder, discussing the terms with several possible contenders or their emissaries.
Harris played a central role in wiretapped conversations in which the two discussed the scheme, according to court papers. And while a criminal complaint against the men appeared to offer damning confirmation of improper discussions, debate raged within the legal community about whether U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald moved prematurely to bring bribery and conspiracy charges before the consummation of an illegal act.
Fitzgerald has said he acted quickly because he feared that Blagojevich, who has sole power to make the Senate appointment, would carry out some of the illegal schemes discussed on the tapes, including killing funding for a children's hospital project to strong-arm contributions from a reluctant hospital executive.
The case has enmeshed Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), who has been identified as the complaint's "Senate Candidate 5" but who has said he is "not a target" of the criminal probe. Representatives for Blagojevich did not comment on a report in the Chicago Tribune that businessmen with ties to him and Jackson held a fundraiser last weekend, followed two days later by a meeting between the governor and Jackson to discuss the Senate seat.
Late yesterday, people close to Rahm Emanuel, the incoming White House chief of staff and House member who succeeded Blagojevich in the 5th District seat, said he also is not a target of the probe. Blagojevich told Harris in one Nov. 13 recording that he wanted to be able to call a "president-elect advisor," according to the complaint, and ask, "Can you guys help . . . raise 10, 15 million?"
Among those who have confirmed recent contact from the FBI are Tom Balanoff, a Democratic Party loyalist who leads the Illinois chapter of the Service Employees International Union, and officials at the Chicago Tribune.
Recordings captured Harris musing about a deal in which the SEIU would find Blagojevich a high-paying job with an affiliate. Tribune officials had been pressured to fire editorial writers critical of the governor, in exchange for state help on the sale of the company's Wrigley Field baseball park, the complaint said.
Still unknown is whether anybody in the Obama camp knew of the extent of the allegations against the governor and whether they shared concerns with law enforcement. Obama denied Wednesday that any of his staff members engaged in horse trading over the Senate seat.
The resignation of Harris was seen as a possible first sign that he might be cooperating with federal investigators. His lawyer Jim Sotos said yesterday that "John resigned because he believed it was the right thing to do," but he declined to comment further.
Word of the resignation came as Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) took the unprecedented step of petitioning the state's highest court to seek Blagojevich's ouster.
Federal prosecutors and FBI agents have mined public corruption in Illinois for more than five years, slowly building a case that they called Operation Board Games. Prosecutors secured convictions against insiders who did not bend, including Antoin "Tony" Rezko, once an adviser to Blagojevich and a fundraiser for both the governor and Obama. Rezko, whose criminal case gained wide attention during Obama's Democratic primary campaign, is now helping the government in exchange for a reduced prison sentence.