Obama Report Clears Dealings With Blagojevich

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

White House Chief of Staff-designate Rahm Emanuel spoke "one or two" times with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and "about four" times with the governor's chief of staff but did not engage in any inappropriate discussions about who should be appointed to Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat, according to a report issued yesterday by Obama's staff.

The five-page memorandum, which was released to reporters by e-mail as the president-elect continued his vacation in Hawaii, says that the contact between the scandal-plagued governor and Obama's staff was proper and limited in scope.

"The accounts contain no indication of inappropriate discussions with the Governor or anyone from his office about a 'deal' or a quid pro quo arrangement in which he would receive a personal benefit in return for any specific appointment to fill the vacancy," said the report, written by White House counsel-designate Gregory Craig.

The report also revealed for the first time that officials with the U.S. attorney's office investigating the Blagojevich case interviewed Obama on Dec. 18 as part of their criminal probe. Emanuel was interviewed on Dec. 20, and longtime Obama friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett was interviewed on Dec. 19.

The report did not disclose what information the three provided to prosecutors, who have indicated that Obama and his staff are not targets in the case. Obama aides said that Jarrett and Emanuel retained attorneys to represent them during interviews with prosecutors and during the internal staff review.

U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald has accused Blagojevich (D) and the governor's former chief of staff, John Harris, of conspiring to sell Obama's seat to the highest bidder. The federal complaint is based on hours of recordings of conversations involving Blagojevich and Harris.

The existence of the tapes -- almost none of which has been aired publicly -- has prompted furious speculation about whether they include discussions between Blagojevich and members of Obama's staff about the Senate seat.

One conversation described in Fitzgerald's complaint hinted that the governor was frustrated by contacts with Obama or his staff.

"Blagojevich said he knows that the President-elect wants Senate Candidate 1 for the Senate seat," the complaint states, referring to an individual many believe to be Jarrett, and goes on to quote Blagojevich as saying: "But 'they're not willing to give me anything except appreciation. [Expletive] them.' "

The report helps explain the first part of that statement: In his early conversations with the governor, Emanuel touted Jarrett as the best candidate, according to the Obama memo, before learning from Obama that he wanted to remain neutral on the subject.

"The President-Elect believed it appropriate to provide the names of multiple candidates to be considered, along with others, who were qualified to hold the seat and able to retain it in a future election," Craig wrote.

But the report does not make clear why Blagojevich stated that he thought the Obama staff was "not willing to give me anything." It states that none of Obama's staff ever suspected that the governor was seeking anything improper in exchange for the Senate seat.

"No one in the Obama circle was aware of what was going on in the governor's office or the governor's mind until the governor was arrested," Craig told reporters in a conference call after the report was released. "No one suspected that there was any effort to crack the circle."

Days after Blagojevich was arrested, Obama said that he had not talked to his home-state governor and promised to disclose his staff's contacts after an internal review that he said would take just a few days.

The president-elect later delayed the release of the internal investigation at Fitzgerald's request. Craig said the report is based solely on the recollections of those interviewed, because no one on Obama's staff had access to Fitzgerald's tapes.

The report confirms leaked reports that Emanuel had repeated contact with the governor's office immediately after being named Obama's chief of staff. But it asserts that none of the contacts went beyond discussions of who might be considered for the Senate seat.

"Mr. Emanuel and the Governor did not discuss a cabinet position, 501c(4), a private sector position for the Governor or any other personal benefit for the Governor," Craig wrote in the report. The report does not say whether Emanuel discussed campaign contributions, which courts do not consider a "personal benefit." A transition team official said that such contributions were not discussed.

The report says that Emanuel was communicating to Harris, at Obama's request, the people whom Obama thought should be considered for the post, but that Obama directed him not to express a preference.

Emanuel offered six names as possible candidates after Jarrett withdrew hers to accept a job in the White House: Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Jesse L. Jackson Jr.; Illinois Comptroller Daniel W. Hynes; Illinois Veterans Affairs Secretary Tammy Duckworth, a veteran of the Iraq war; Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan; and Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Jackson.

The report says that Emanuel's conversations with Harris were about "the merits of potential candidates and the strategic benefit that each candidate would bring to the Senate seat."

The report says that Jarrett had a passing conversation with Blagojevich at a conference but that she otherwise had no contact with the governor's office.

Jarrett did discuss the Senate seat with a union official, Tom Balanoff of the Service Employees International Union, the report says. During that conversation, Balanoff told her that Blagojevich had raised the possibility of being appointed secretary of health and human services.

"Ms. Jarrett did not understand the conversation to suggest that the Governor wanted the cabinet seat as a quid pro quo for selecting any specific candidate to be the President-Elect's replacement," the report says.

Craig wrote that Obama adviser David Axelrod did not have any contact with the governor or his staff. The report says that one Obama friend who is not employed in the transition effort had a brief conversation about the subject with a member of Blagojevich's staff.

Emanuel has not commented about his contacts with Blagojevich. He left yesterday on what his staff described as a long-planned family vacation to Africa.

Obama did not comment on the report's contents. Earlier this month, he said the report found that his staff had done nothing wrong.

Asked about the report earlier yesterday, Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. said that he did not believe "there is anything to exonerate," because the report shows "there has been no inappropriate contact between any member of the Obama staff or transition team with Blagojevich."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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