By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 3, 2009
CHICAGO, April 2 -- A federal grand jury charged former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich on Thursday with racketeering, extortion and fraud, opening a new chapter in the prosecution of the voluble Democrat, who could spend years behind bars if convicted.
The 75-page indictment, which also charged Blagojevich's brother and four associates, describes a brazen political operation designed to strengthen the governor's hold on power and make money that Blagojevich would get after he left office.
Even before Blagojevich took office in January 2003, after riding to victory on an anti-corruption platform, he allegedly plotted with his chief of staff and fundraisers Antoin "Tony" Rezko and Christopher Kelly to make money illicitly and split it later.
Blagojevich, who was impeached and removed from office after his arrest on Dec. 9, was charged with 16 counts, including 11 counts of wire fraud, three counts of extortion, one count of racketeering and one count of lying to federal investigators in 2005.
He stands accused of trying to profit from the sale of President Obama's former Senate seat, as well as trying to force the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial writers by threatening to withhold state money from the newspaper's owner.
Blagojevich, 52, is vacationing with his family in Florida and remains free on bond. He maintains his innocence, asserting that he is being wrongly pursued because of his populist political stands.
He said in a statement Thursday: "I'm saddened and hurt but I am not surprised by the indictment. I am innocent. I now will fight in the courts to clear my name. I would ask the good people of Illinois to wait for the trial and afford me the presumption of innocence that they would give to all their friends and neighbors."
The indictment is the fruit of a nearly six-year investigation that has resulted in charges against many of Blagojevich's closest friends and supporters.
The document contains influence-peddling charges against former chiefs of staff Lon Monk and John Harris and fundraisers Kelly and William F. Cellini Sr., as well as Blagojevich and his brother Robert.
The indictment goes beyond the detailed FBI affidavit filed in support of Blagojevich's arrest. It alleges that Rezko funneled more than $100,000 to the governor's wife in 2003-2004 in payments disguised as real estate fees.
After Patricia Blagojevich's real estate business came under scrutiny by federal authorities and the media, according to the indictment, the governor instructed Harris to find a paid position on the state Pollution Control Board for her.
When Harris said she was unqualified, Blagojevich ordered him to find something else, later suggesting that Harris set up meetings for her with financial institutions doing business with Illinois. After two meetings yielded nothing, the indictment charges, the governor declared that the companies would get no further state business.
At the heart of the alleged conspiracy was Blagojevich's decision to give Rezko and Kelly significant authority over state boards and commissions, knowing they would profit from their roles. In return, Blagojevich and his family would receive "financial benefits," said prosecutors, who will seek to seize $188,000 from him.
Rezko, who was convicted of corruption charges and is in jail awaiting sentencing, also allegedly gave Monk a series of $10,000 payments totaling $70,000 to $90,000.
A prodigious Democratic fundraiser who lived on Chicago's North Shore, Rezko was a scout of political talent. He contributed to Obama's state Senate campaign in 1996 and became friends with him. Their relationship was an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign.
In what Obama has described as a "boneheaded" move, he and Rezko bought adjacent properties in Chicago's Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood from the same owner in July 2005.
Obama later bought a slice of Rezko's property to expand his yard. He said Rezko did not ask for any favors and was not granted any.
The sweep of the charges against Blagojevich brought a reminder of the state's wheeling and dealing political subculture.
"Even those of us who had questions about the governor's ethics could not have imagined how nakedly he would have approached this," said David Lundy, acting executive director of the Better Government Association. "This spells out a guy who looked at the governor's office as something he could sell."
One of the new allegations is that Blagojevich tried to extort a favor from a member of Congress.
When the representative -- described in the indictment as Congressman A -- asked about the status of a $2 million grant for a publicly supported school, the governor allegedly ordered no money released until the congressman's brother staged a Blagojevich fundraiser.
The money had been included in the state budget, and the congressman never held the fundraiser. But in a fit of pique, Blagojevich allegedly delayed releasing the money, even after the school had begun spending money.
Staff writer Kari Lydersen contributed to this report.