By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
SPRINGFIELD, Ill., Jan. 27 -- When Gov. Rod Blagojevich's voice emerged from secretly recorded FBI tapes for the first time Tuesday, the alleged topic of discussion was a $100,000 bribe from a racetrack operator.
The governor was in a hurry to see the money dropped into his campaign treasury by the end of last year, before new ethics rules took effect, impeachment prosecutor David Ellis told the Illinois state senators who will decide whether to oust Blagojevich for abuse of power.
One of the four conversations was with Blagojevich's brother, who reported about a talk with the racetrack operator.
"He said: 'You know, I'm good for it. I got to just decide what, what accounts to get it out of,' " Robert Blagojevich says.
"Right," Rod Blagojevich replies. "Before the end of the year, though, right?"
"Yeah, yeah, there was no waffling there," Robert says.
After more back-and-forth, the governor repeats, "But clearly before the end of the year, right?"
"Yeah, yeah," his brother replies.
Blagojevich was seeking the money in return for signing legislation that benefited the racing industry, said Ellis and federal prosecutors, who contend that the two-term Democratic governor repeatedly tried to shake down people seeking state business.
As the second day of the impeachment trial focused on Blagojevich's own words, the governor continued to boycott the proceedings, dismissing them as a "political witch hunt."
Instead of challenging the evidence, he has spent two days in New York, where he has granted more than a dozen television interviews assailing the fairness of the trial without explaining his actions.
Blagojevich contends that all the tapes captured by FBI telephone wiretaps and microphones hidden in his Chicago campaign office should be introduced. He said they would provide "context" for actions that prosecutors say included an effort to sell President Obama's former U.S. Senate seat.
U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, determined to protect the criminal corruption prosecution, refused legislators' requests for more tapes and the testimony of important witnesses. He released only about five minutes of tapes and permitted FBI agent Daniel Cain to affirm a 76-page affidavit.
The prosecutors contend that the four conversations show a plot by Blagojevich to squeeze a $100,000 contribution from racing executive John Johnston, who is not accused of any wrongdoing. The prize was a bill on Blagojevich's desk to share casino receipts with ailing horse tracks.
On the final tape played to rapt senators, lobbyist and former Blagojevich chief of staff Lon Monk suggests that the governor call Johnston himself and make sure the payment arrives on time.
"It's better if you do it, just from a pressure point of view," Monk says.
"Yeah, good," Blagojevich replies. "I'll call him and say: 'Yeah . . . we want to do an event downstate. We want to do it and hope to do this so we can get together and start picking some dates to do a bill signing."
Monk adds, "I'm telling you, he's going to be good for it. I got in his face."
Sen. Dan Cronin (R) stood outside the Senate chamber -- where Blagojevich's words were printed on large placards: "The Senate seat 'is a [expletive] valuable thing, you don't just give it away for nothing' " -- and likened the conversations to a Hollywood movie in which a mobster is shaking down a thug.
"It's so surreal and so perverse," Cronin said. "It's astounding to me."
Rep. Jack D. Franks (D), a longtime Blagojevich antagonist, listened to the tapes and said, "This sounds like he's done it before."
Johnston apparently never made the contribution. Blagojevich was arrested five days after the final conversation. Released to await trial, he later signed the bill.
In announcing the arrest on Dec. 9, Fitzgerald said Blagojevich intensified his political fundraising late last year to beat the Jan. 1 date on which new ethics rules took effect.
"You might have thought in that environment that pay-to-play would slow down," Fitzgerald said. "The opposite happened. It sped up."
The racetrack matter and the alleged attempt to profit from his appointment of Obama's successor are two of 13 points in a single article of impeachment approved 117 to 1 by the state House.
A Senate vote is expected by week's end.
If Blagojevich is stripped of his job, as expected, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn (D) will take charge of a government that sputtered for months before losing all steam after the governor's arrest.
U.S. Reps. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) and Bill Foster (D-Ill.) are pushing a provision that would ensure that no federal economic stimulus money is routed through the governor's office if Blagojevich remains in power.
Blagojevich has already been stripped of his U.S. homeland security clearance. His attorney quit the case. He said his family is struggling. His daughters are taking solace in a new puppy.
When his youngest daughter asked whether he will still be governor when she turns 6 in April, he said, he told her he very much doubts it.