CHICAGO — Federal authorities arrested Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich today on charges that he brazenly conspired to sell or trade the Senate seat left vacant by President-elect Barack Obama to the highest bidder.
Blagojevich also was charged with illegally threatening to withhold state assistance to Tribune Co., the owner of the Chicago Tribune, in the sale of Wrigley Field, according to a federal criminal complaint. In return for state assistance, Blagojevich allegedly wanted members of the paper’s editorial board who had been critical of him fired.
A 76-page FBI affidavit said the 51-year-old Democratic governor was intercepted on court-authorized wiretaps over the last month conspiring to sell or trade the vacant Senate seat for personal benefits for himself and his wife, Patti.
Otherwise, Blagojevich considered appointing himself. The affidavit said that as late as Nov. 3, he told his deputy governor that if “they’re not going to offer me anything of value I might as well take it.”
“I’m going to keep this Senate option for me a real possibility, you know, and therefore I can drive a hard bargain,” Blagojevich allegedly said later that day, according to the affidavit, which also quoted him as saying in a remark punctuated by profanity that the seat was “a valuable thing — you just don’t give it away for nothing.”
The affidavit said Blagojevich also discussed getting a substantial salary for himself at a nonprofit foundation or an organization affiliated with labor unions.
It said Blagojevich also talked about getting his wife placed on corporate boards where she might get $150,000 a year in director’s fees.
He also allegedly discussed getting campaign funds for himself or possibly a post in the president’s Cabinet or an ambassadorship once he left the governor’s office. He noted becoming a U.S. senator might remake his image for a possible presidential run in 2016, according to the affidavit. And he allegedly said a Senate seat would also provide him with corporate contacts if he needed a job and present an opportunity for his wife to work as a lobbyist.
“I want to make money,” the affidavit quotes him as saying in one conversation.
The affidavit said Blagojevich expressed frustration at being “stuck” as governor and that he would have access to greater resources if he were indicted while in the U.S. Senate than while sitting as governor.
U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said in a statement that “the breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering.”
“They allege that Blagojevich put a for sale sign on the naming of a United States senator,” Fitzgerald said.”
Among those being considered for the post include U.S. Reps. Danny Davis and Jesse Jackson Jr.
Blagojevich also was charged with using his authority as governor in an attempt to squeeze out campaign contributions.
His chief of staff, John Harris, also was arrested.
Corruption in the Blagojevich administration has been the focus of a federal investigation involving an alleged $7 million scheme aimed at squeezing kickbacks out of companies seeking business from the state. Federal prosecutors have acknowledged they’re also investigating “serious allegations of endemic hiring fraud” under Blagojevich.
Political fundraiser Antoin “Tony” Rezko who raised money for the campaigns of both Blagojevich and Obama is awaiting sentencing after being convicted of fraud and other charges. Blagojevich’s chief fundraiser, Christopher G. Kelly, is due to stand trial early next year on charges of obstructing the Internal Revenue Service.
According to today’s complaint, Blagojevich schemed with Rezko, millionaire-fundraiser turned federal witness Stuart Levine and others to get financial benefits for himself and his campaign committee.
Federal prosecutors said Blagojevich and the chairman of his campaign committee have been speeding up corrupt fundraising activities in the last month to get as much money as possible before the end of the year when a new law would curtail his ability to raise contributions from companies with state contracts worth more than $50,000.
According to the affidavit, agents learned Blagojevich was seeking $2.5 million in campaign contributions by the end of the year, with a large part allegedly to come from companies and individuals who have gotten state contracts or appointments.
Blagojevich took the chief executive’s office in 2003 as a reformer promising to clean up former Gov. George Ryan’s mess.
Ryan, a Republican, is serving a 6-year prison sentence after being convicted on racketeering and fraud charges. A decade-long investigation began with the sale of driver’s licenses for bribes and led to the conviction of dozens of people who worked for Ryan when he was secretary of state and governor.
FBI spokesman Frank Bochte said federal agents arrested the governor and Harris simultaneously at their homes at 6:15 a.m. and took them to the Chicago FBI headquarters.
Bochte said he did not know if either man was handcuffed or if the governor’s family was their North Side home at the time of his arrest. He did say Blagojevich and Harris both were given time to get dressed before being taken to the headquarters.
He also did not have any details about Blagojevich’s arrest, only that he was cooperative with federal agents.
“It was a very calm setting,” he said.
The governor was to appear later today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Nan Nolan to answer the charges. The time was not immediately set.