WASHINGTON – Though Barack Obama isn’t accused of anything, the charges against his home-state governor – concerning Obama’s own Senate seat – are an unwelcome distraction. And the ultimate fallout is unclear.
As the president-elect works to set up his new administration and deal with a national economic crisis, suddenly he also is spending time and attention trying to distance himself from Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Federal prosecutors charged Blagojevich on Tuesday with engaging in a series of illegal schemes intended to enrich himself, including an attempt to sell the Senate seat recently vacated by Obama.
In conversations riddled with coarse language and blunt threats that the FBI recorded with telephone wiretaps and listening devices planted in his campaign office, the Democratic governor laid bare a “pay-for-play” culture that, according to prosecutors, began shortly after he took office in 2002 and continued until before sunrise Tuesday, when FBI agents arrested him and John Harris, his chief of staff.
Beyond deliberations about filling the Senate seat, Blagojevich and Harris discussed withholding funding for a children’s hospital project until its chief executive made campaign donations, investigators said. They allegedly pressured the owner of the Chicago Tribune to fire a critical editorial writer if the newspaper expected substantial state assistance for Wrigley Field, which is owned by the Tribune Co.
“Governor Blagojevich has been arrested in the middle of what we can only describe as a public corruption crime spree,” U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said in announcing the charges Tuesday. “The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave.”
In a state with a notable history of influence peddling, the allegations against the two-term governor and his chief of staff resounded across Chicago’s political circles and among Washington’s newly energized Democratic elites, who are busy planning the Obama inauguration.
Obama, who once supported Blagojevich but had distanced himself from the governor in recent years, told reporters that he was “saddened” by the arrests. Fitzgerald emphasized that the case “makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever.”
The president-elect was blunt and brief in addressing the case Tuesday: “I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so I was not aware of what was happening” concerning any possible dealing about Blagojevich’s appointment of a successor.
It’s Obama’s first big headache since his election last month, and Republicans were anything but eager to let it go away.
Said Rep. Eric Cantor, of Virginia, the new GOP House whip: “The serious nature of the crimes listed by federal prosecutors raises questions about the interaction with Governor Blagojevich, President-elect Obama and other high ranking officials who will be working for the future president.”
Added Robert M. “Mike” Duncan, chairman of the Republican National Committee: “Americans expect strong leadership, but President-elect Barack Obama’s comments on the matter are insufficient at best.”
But Blagojevich himself, in taped conversations cited by prosecutors, suggested that Obama wouldn’t be helpful to him. Even if the governor was to appoint a candidate favored by the Obama team, Blagojevich said, “they’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation.”
The two Illinois politicians have never been especially close and have largely operated in different Democratic Party camps in the state. Blagojevich’s disdain for Obama was clear in court documents; he is quoted as calling the president-elect a vulgar term in one phone conversation recorded by the FBI.
Still, at the very least, the episode amounts to a distraction for Obama at an inopportune time just six weeks before he’s sworn into office. It also raises the specter of notorious Chicago politics, an image Obama has tried to distance himself from during his career.
And there were signs the continuing investigation could involve him.
His statement that he didn’t have contact with Blagojevich about the Senate seat seems to conflict with that of top adviser David Axelrod, who told Fox News Chicago on Nov. 23: “I know he’s talked to the governor, and there are a whole range of names, many of which have surfaced, and I think he has a fondness for a lot of them.”
On Tuesday, Axelrod issued a statement saying: “I was mistaken. … They did not then or at any time discuss the subject.”
It also appears that Obama friend Valerie Jarrett, an incoming senior White House adviser, is the person referred to repeatedly in court documents as “Candidate 1.” That individual is described as a female who is “an adviser to the president-elect” and as the person Obama wanted appointed to the Senate seat. Court papers say that “Candidate 1” eventually removed “herself” from consideration for the Senate seat.
FBI agents targeted Blagojevich and Harris after secretly enlisting close associates, placing a bug in the governor’s campaign office and wiretapping his home telephone, all with approval from Justice Department officials and a federal judge in the northern district of Illinois.
Blagojevich, who turns 52 today, and Harris, 46, appeared in a Chicago federal courthouse Tuesday afternoon to answer charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and solicitation of bribery. The charges carry maximum combined penalties of 30 years in prison.
Blagojevich was released after paying a $4,500 bond and agreeing to turn over his passport and a card entitling him to own a firearm.
The court papers unsealed Tuesday depict a race by the governor and his allies to collect more than $2.5 million in campaign money before year’s end, when a new Illinois law barring contributions from people and companies with significant state contracts will take effect.
Troubled by the “feverish” attempts to accelerate fundraising, authorities intensified Operation Board Games, their five-year investigation of kickbacks and government favor trading in Illinois government. They received permission to listen in on telephone conversations at the governor’s campaign office and later at his home.
Investigators say they overheard Blagojevich and his senior advisers scrambling to raise money and dispense favors, especially Obama’s coveted Senate seat. The governor has the sole authority to appoint a successor. The men brazenly discussed favors Blagojevich could receive in exchange for naming certain people to the post – using it to leverage an Obama appointment to an ambassadorship or head of the Health and Human Services Department or to win a lucrative job heading a charitable organization such as the Red Cross.