Illinois Gov. Arrested on Corruption Charges
Tuesday, December 9, 2008; 3:30 PM
FBI agents this morning arrested Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich (D) and his chief of staff on conspiracy and bribery charges, including allegations that the governor was seeking to benefit financially from his appointment of a successor to the U.S. Senate seat that was vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.
Alan Greenblatt, staff writer at Governing.com, was online Tuesday, Dec. 9 at 3:30 p.m. ET to discuss the local reaction in Chicago and on the national scene.
A transcript follows.
Alan Greenblatt: Hello. The last time I was on this page was in March, discussing the resignation of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Blagojevich presents a very different case.
Spitzer's problems were essentially personal, but Blagojevich's alleged offenses -- and keep in mind that nothing has been proven -- are deeply rooted in his performance in office.
Blagojevich has been a target for federal investigators for several years and a number of his associates -- aides and fundraisers -- have already been convicted. Patrick Fitzgerald and his team were trying to make a case directly pinning lapses on Blagojevich -- always tricky.
But Blagojevich seems to have been willfully oblivious to the sort of scrutiny he's been under. Just yesterday, at a press conference he responded to reports that the feds were bugging him this way:
"If anybody wants to tape my conversations, go right ahead, feel free to do it. I appreciate anybody who wants to tape me openly and notoriously. And those who feel like they wanna sneakily and wear taping devices, I would remind them that it kinda smells like Nixon and Watergate."
Catching a corrupt official in the act, on tape, is every prosecutor's dream. As I said, Blagojevich hasn't been convicted of anything, but I expect we'll know a lot more about the inner workings of his office in the coming weeks.
Anonymous: Corrupt politicians in Illinois. Who woulda thunk it? If, as has been suggested, the Illinois legislature were to pass a bill mandating a special election to take place right away, in order to avoid the possibility of an indicated (but not yet convicted or impeached) governor from appointing a U.S. senator, would this even be feasible? Could it occur in time for the winner to take office in January? If the governor were to resign today, who would take his place?
Alan Greenblatt: The statement of Robert Grant, the FBI agent in charge of this case at the news conference today, was really astonishing:
"If it [Illinois] isn't the most corrupt state in the United States, it's certainly one hell of a competitor."
Remember that Blagojevich's predecessor, George Ryan, is serving time in prison right now for corruption charges. Two other Illinois governors have gone to prison since the 1960s.
I doubt a special election could be called and organized by January but it's not unusual for Senate seats to stay open for a while.
If Blagojevich resigns, his replacement will be Pat Quinn, the lieutenant governor. Quinn has to some extent but not quite sought to distance himself from the governor, who has long been unpopular.
In the spring, Quinn said he'd support a new law to allow the governor and other officials to be recalled, without saying Blagojevich should be recalled. Today, he said Blagojevich should step aside, if only temporarily.
Silver Spring, Md.: Let's assume Blagojevich fights the charges and doesn't resign. What are the Illinois legislature's options to remove him? And is Lt. Gov. Quinn free from scandal?
Alan Greenblatt: Here is the key question. I don't have any sense that Quinn is involved in the alleged corruption. As I said earlier, he's been trying a difficult dance of not being disloyal while signaling his differences.
There's talk that the legislature will meet, perhaps even in special session, to impeach Blagojevich. There's been lots of impeachment talk around Springfield for at least a couple of years. The governors has many enemies and few powerful friends -- his most powerful, Senate President Emil Jones, is retiring.
If the governor doesn't resign soon, impeachment seems likely in my view. But who knows who is talking to the prosecutors about what right now and what deals are being made or sought.
washingtonpost.com: The Corruption Puzzle (Governing.com, July 2008)
Washington, D.C.: I don't think they're going to blow him up like they did Eliot Spitzer. Election's over. Just eavesdropping and speech crimes.
Why is the prosecutor publicly fishing for evidence and attempting to poison the jury pool?
Alan Greenblatt: Fitzgerald said at his presser that they wanted to expose the governor's alleged doings to sunshine while issues were still ongoing, rather than waiting until after -- eg, the Senate seat and the pending bill that could help the person Blagojevich wanted contributions from.
Spitzer didn't need to be blown up. He had been on such an ethical high horse that he had no chance to survive a scandal involving prostitution.
The difference with Blagojevich is that, if the allegations are proven, he'll not only be out of office but doing time. Spitzer was never prosecuted.
Chevy Chase, Md.: Will some of this blow back on Obama? The right wing blogs have already insisted there's a connection between the two. Any traction here?
Alan Greenblatt: This case clearly will be something that touches on Obama -- not in any legal way, but in terms of news coverage and as you way blog chatter.
Remember this summer Obama took some hits for his association with Tony Rezko -- he bought some land from Rezko, etc. Rezko was a Blagojevich fundraiser convicted on corruption charges that are related to the current case.
So there's a swimming in the same water issue. But Obama has always been tied to the Chicago machine, which Blagojevich came out of but has largely spurned while in office. They were not particularly close as even same-state senators and governors go.
And there's no suggestion that Obama had anything to do with the Blagojevich administration's alleged corruption and shakedown schemes.
But there will be more digging into who is Senate Candidate 1 and Senate Candidate 5 and who dropped the dime on the alleged kickback and job requests.
To me, one interesting question is what Obama does with Patrick Fitzgerald. After Fitzgerald won a conviction in the Valerie Plame/Scooter Libby case, lots of left bloggers were talking him up for attorney general. Obviously that job is already taken.
Can Obama appoint Fitzgerald to Justice, or does that smack of rewarding him for Bush White House scalp hunting? Does he accept Fitzgerald's resignation when he offers it to the new administration as all U.S. attorneys will, or does he have to leave him in place for fear of accusations he's getting rid of the guy who's prosecuted two governors in his home state?
Washington, D.C.: Do we know what prompted Justice to wiretap the governor?
Alan Greenblatt: As I mentioned earlier, Blagojevich has been under investigation since 2004, with several of his cronies already convicted. I don't have any knowledge about what prompted the wiretap in recent weeks.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Technically, Gov. Blagojevich is still the only person who can name someone to the vacant Senate seat. Assuming he does not resign, how does he best get a nominee appointed who rises above any of this taint?
Alan Greenblatt: Illinois' other senator, Dick Durbin, today called for a special election to fill Obama's seat.
The legislature can pass a law to let that scenario play out, but we won't know the answer to this for a couple of days, I expect. There will be lots of attention that will flush out everyone's intentions, I'm sure.
Fairfax County, Va.: What are the roots of this situation in Illinois? Was it always this way? I had the mistaken idea that it had cleaned up its act in the last few decades. Does this current scandal relate to the one involving the previous governor or are they totally separate events? Does it connect to the scandals that toppled Obama's opponents for the Senate seat four years ago? My understanding was always that it was Louisiana that was corrupt, partly due to the extreme poverty there, but why Illinois?
Alan Greenblatt: Illinois has always had a cozy political culture. Remember that Blagojevich won his House seat in 1996, taking back a Democratic seat two years after a Republican unseated Dan Rostenkowski, who had abused his power as Ways and Means chairman.
Blagojevich was helped then and in his run for governor from help from what was left of the fabled Chicago political machine. He was backed by Mayor Daley and Alderman Richard Mell -- his father-in-law.
Blagojevich ran on a pledge to clean up corruption in Springfield. In fact, he refused to move there. Treating the rest of the government, especially as legislators, as crooks and "drunken sailors" was part of his political problem in office.
But his corruption is not related to the reasons George Ryan is in prison -- remember that Blagojevich was publicly calling for Ryan to be pardoned just last month. In fact, Ryan's problems arose not from his governorship but his time as Illinois secretary of state.
The GOP's problems in Illinois are the reason Blagojevich was elected -- remember, he was the first Democrat elected governor in that state in 32 years -- and also why he was reelected in 2006, despite already low approval ratings.
Franconia, Va.: What can or should people like Obama, Jarrett, Emanuel or Jesse Jackson, Jr., do or say at this point?
Alan Greenblatt: I think everyone expresses sadness.
Part of Blagojevich's "dilly dallying" in picking a new senator, as one Chicago columnist put it last week, was that he has so few friends and allies. He doesn't get along with Jesse Jackson Jr. There was talk at one point he might appoint state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, to get her out of the way for the 2010 governor's race.
Arlington, Va.: At this point can we guess who some of these unnamed people in the complaint are, for example Candidate 5? Or former Congressman?
Alan Greenblatt: I've read speculation that Senate Candidate 1 -- the person Blagojevich would be willing to appoint in exchange for a cabinet position or labor union job -- is Valerie Jarrett.
Calls are already in to people reporters suspect may be Candidate 5. In cases like these, the names always come out, if not always officially.
Chicago, Ill.: During the presidential campaign, both Obama and McCain were asked by the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board if they would retain Fitzgerald as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois if elected. Both said that they would keep Fitzgerald.
Alan Greenblatt: A reader following this more closely than I've been, regarding Fitzgerald.
New York: Hello Alan, thanks for the chat. Why would a governor who knows he's the target of a federal corruption investigation try to 'sell' a Senate seat? It boggles the mind. Anybody have an insight into this?
Alan Greenblatt: As I mentioned above, Blagojevich had a different perspective on his problems than others might have had, saying he wasn't worried about being bugged.
He's been under investigation for years and seen many of his friends go to jail.
And yet he apparently thought he could still get away with doing more deals. The complaint states that he thought he might appoint himself to the Senate seat to
A) spare himself impeachment
and B) position himself to run for president in 2016
How do you square that circle?
As to the psychology of this, I keep thinking today of a quote that ran in a public corruption piece I published in Governing in July:
"People in public office, particularly legislators, ought to know they are in somebody's gun sights," says Alan Rosenthal, an expert on legislatures at Rutgers University. "If it's not an opponent or a newspaper, it's the prosecuting attorney."
New York : Its being reported that Rahm Emmanuel blew the whistle on at least part of the Senate seat caper. Can you verify this?
Alan Greenblatt: I've heard this rumor, too. We'll put it out there, in the spirit of the Internet.
Northern Virginia: Do you think it would be better if all states filled long-term Senate vacancies (those more than a month or two) with special elections, rather than by appointment? This is the first case that has so clearly shown me that the appointment system is an open invitation to wrongdoing -- are there other cases in the past that have been just as blatant?
Alan Greenblatt: I don't think there's any questions that Senate appointments are highly political. Remember that Sarah Palin became governor of Alaska in part because of anger that her predecessor, Frank Murkowski, had appointed his daughter to his Senate seat.
I was talking with a colleague about how old-fashioned this sounded, almost 19th century -- I'll give up the Senate seat to the highest bidder. I haven't had a chance to go back and read the history about when or if this has happened before.
The House requires that all its members be elected. It's typical in many states to go this route -- gubernatorial appointment followed by a special election during the next election year to fill out the whole term.
Dianne Feinstein won her seat in 1992 by beating the guy Pete Wilson had appointed to fill his own seat.
Ashburn, Va.: When Governor Blagojevich was arrested, was he cuffed, finger printed and have his mug photographed? Can you think of another sitting governor having been arrested this way?
Alan Greenblatt: I heard that the FBI called Blagojevich and said, look, we've got a car outside, just come out quietly and surrender yourself. They didn't want a perp walk. But the governor's kids apparently stirred in time to see their dad in handcuffs.
Harrisburg, Pa.: I am not saying this would happen, but could Gov. Blagojevich turn the nomination process over to Lt. Gov. Quinn and then state he will formally nominate whoever Lt. Gov. Quinn appoints?
Alan Greenblatt: I'm guessing that the Senate seat is actually not foremost on Blagojevich's mind just now. He's got to figure out whether he can preserve his own office, whether that is worth doing, and also plot his legal strategy.
Some states, by the way, take some of the selection power away from the governor. The party that has held the seat submits three names and the governor gets to pick one.
I see from our own blog, Ballot Box, at governing.com, that Emil Jones will call a special session to fill the seat:
Alan Greenblatt: Here's a piece on other states' methodology for filling Senate vacancies:
Falls Church, Va.: I read a quote where the Governor says that it turns out all he was going to get from Obama for the pick was "gratitude" and then he cursed. So he was in contact with them. Is there any chance that they contacted the FBI themselves as this was playing out?
Alan Greenblatt: All they would give him was "appreciation." It would be shocking to me if Obama didn't hint as to his preferences while ritually saying it would all be up to Blagojevich.
As I said, there are rumors that Obama's people went to the FBI. I'd like to see a lot more confirmation on that. I'm sure Rahm Emmanuel will be asked but I'm skeptical.
washingtonpost.com: Blagojevich Won't Get to Name a Senator After All? (Governing.com Ballot Box, Dec. 9)
washingtonpost.com: There are better ways to replace a senato (Chicago Tribune, Dec. 4)
Bronx, N.Y. : Who incurred the governor's wrath at the Tribune? Has he/she commented on it?
Alan Greenblatt: Blagojevich wanted various editors fired. One is named in the complaint, John P. McCormick, the deputy editorial page editor.
The paper has been tough on the governor. They had an editorial in favor of creating a recall provision that was quite damning. Here's a piece from September predicting that the governor would be recalled or impeached.
They've also broken a lot of stories, including some about Mrs. Blagojevich getting big money deals from state contractors -- I hasten to note she has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
Dallas, Tex.: Will Caroline Kennedy face a tougher time for being named New York senator now because of the Illinois governoe problem? Will people think that she was given it for polictical favors?
Alan Greenblatt: I don't think anyone will believe the Kennedys are offering bribe money for a Senate seat.
On the other hand, there's been some dish that Caroline floated her name out there to impede Andrew Cuomo, the state attorney general -- who used to be married to her cousin.
Rumors are always fun but grains of salt should be kept handy for situations like this.
Chicago, Ill.: Quinn and Blagovitch aren't close. (In Illinois, there are separate primary elections for Gov and Lt. Gov, but they run together as a ticket in the general election.) Quinn is one of the last survivors of a Chicago progressive movement that arose in opposition to the "Chicago Machine" in the 70's and 80's.
Quinn has frequently campaigned against Blago's proposals, most notably ethics reform (ultimately enacted despite Blago's opposition). He also campaigned (unsuccessfully) for an amendment to the Illinois Constitution to add a provision to recall constitutional officers (namely, the Governor).
Alan Greenblatt: More on Quinn from a reader on the scene.
I need to get up to speed on him -- I've only talked to Quinn once. Ironically, it was for a piece about David Paterson, who took over for Spitzer. He and Quinn had done some work together through the National Lieutenant Governors Association (yes, there's an association for everything).
washingtonpost.com: Indict or Impeach? Chicago Tribune, Dec. 28)
North Carolina: I am not surprised. Corruption in political office is rather normal. Id be more concerned if there was not any corruption (laughs). Do you get impression that pay-for- play lies at the heart of politics in the U.S.
Alan Greenblatt: I was struck by the FBI's Robert Grant at the news conference today, how this case sickened even the most cynical agents in the office.
For much of the public, this will be confirmation that all politicians are crooks. Certainly in Illinois there will be a lot of such feeling.
But it saddens me that people only hear about most politicians after they get into trouble. There's obsessive coverage of the White House, but for everything below that, you only hear about senators and governors when they hire prostitutes, text message teenaged pages, or adopt a "wide stance" in public men's rooms.
Blagojevich has not been a notably successful governor, it's fair to say. But the public gets very little coverage of good governors -- pop quiz -- which states are governed by Jon Huntsman Jr. and Christine Gregoire, to name two good ones?
There's certainly plenty of corruption. But the fact that corruption gets wall to wall coverage while people making mostly honest, competent efforts aren't heard from is bound to make people more cynical.
Chicago, Ill.: Are you sure on the kids seeing their dad in handcuffs? Robert Grant of the FBI said today that the kids were not awake to his knowledge and that they were only beginning to stir as they were leaving.
Alan Greenblatt: As I said, double check all rumors before posting on washingtonpost.com -- advice I should take myself.
Wilmington, N.C.: I think that an important question we all have to ask ourselves is 'how in the world do people such as the governor of Illinois ever get elected in the first place?'
Alan Greenblatt: Blagojevich is an amazing story. He managed to win a contentious primary. In retrospect, it's easy to wish that someone else had won that primary because it was certain Democrats were going to win that year.
I had never heard of him then but I've since become a fan of Paul Vallas, who had been a top budget aide in the state and had been superintendent of the Chicago schools when he ran. (He's since run districts in Philadelphia and New Orleans.)
Vallas would have done a far superior job running Illinois' finances, which have been an especial mess in the Blagojevich years.
Anyway, the state GOP was still in rotten shape in 2006, which also was a Democratic year across the country. That allowed Blagojevich to win again.
It's astonishing that Blagojevich thought he was viable for a third term. Even absence this indictment, he had made too many mistakes and too many enemies and it was clear that his pledge to clean up the "culture of corruption" in Springfield was nothing more than a mean joke on his part.
Alan Greenblatt: Well, we've about run out of time. I want to thank everyone for the questions. As I said, I think we're going to know a lot more in the coming days and weeks than we do now.
I expect that Gov. Blagojevich and people around him have many tales to tell and there's a whole new context in which to tell them.
I want to thank washingtonpost.com for having me and hope they'll have me back to chat about state and local politics again -- before the legal downfall of the next governor.
In the meantime, I hope some of you will be encouraged to read our regular coverage of state and local government at governing.com.
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