CHICAGO — President-elect Barack Obama called for Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to resign on today, hours after the embattled governor reported for work amid charges he plotted to sell Obama’s vacant Senate seat.
Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president-elect agrees with other prominent politicians in Illinois and elsewhere that “under the current circumstances, it is difficult for the governor to effectively do his job and serve the people of Illinois.”
Blagojevich was arrested Tuesday, accused of scheming to enrich himself by selling Obama’s open seat for cash or a lucrative job for himself. The governor has authority to appoint the replacement.
In response to questions from the Associated Press, Gibbs said Obama believes the Illinois legislature should consider a special election to fill the seat.
Blagojevich is out on bond and has denied any wrongdoing.
The governor left his home on Chicago’s North Side early today and waved to the media before quickly getting into a dark SUV without talking to reporters.
A short time later, Blagojevich’s SUV arrived at his office.
“He is still the sitting governor of Illinois today, now, and that is not something we have any say in or control of,” U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said in unveiling corruption charges on Tuesday against the 52-year-old governor.
The governor’s attorney, Sheldon Sorosky, said Tuesday he didn’t know of any immediate plans for the governor to resign. Blagojevich believes he didn’t do anything wrong and asks Illinois residents to have faith in him, Sorosky said.
“I suppose we will have to go to trial,” he said.
Blagojevich could still appoint someone to fill Obama’s seat despite the charges that he tried to barter it away for cash or a plum job in what Fitzgerald called “a political corruption crime spree.”
But it would take a lot of nerve and Blagojevich would have to hurry because state lawmakers are racing to snatch away his power to appoint a new senator and put it in the hands of voters.
“No appointment by this governor, under these circumstances, could produce a credible replacement,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said Tuesday after the governor, a second-term Democrat, was arrested on charges of conspiring to commit fraud and soliciting bribery.
Until state lawmakers call a special election, though, Blagojevich still has the power to fill the Senate seat left vacant by President-elect Obama.
Obama was not accused of any wrongdoing.
“I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so we were not — I was not aware of what was happening,” Obama said. “And as I said, it’s a sad day for Illinois. Beyond that, I don’t think it’s appropriate to comment.”
Prosecutors stepped in and had the governor arrested because he was on “what can only be called a political corruption crime spree,” Fitzgerald said.
Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said he is prepared to call the Illinois House into session as early as Monday to set a special election to fill the seat. Illinois Senate President Emil Jones said he had something similar in mind.
In Washington, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., made it plain he didn’t want to seat anyone under such a cloud, saying the charges “are appalling and represent as serious a breach of the public trust as I have ever heard.”
Charged along with Blagojevich was his 46-year-old chief of staff, John Harris, who was accused of taking part in the schemes to enrich the governor.
The FBI said in court papers that Blagojevich was overheard conspiring to sell the Senate seat for campaign cash or lucrative jobs for himself or his wife, a real estate agent. He spoke of using the Senate appointment to land a job with a nonprofit foundation or a union-affiliated group, and even held out hope of getting named Obama’s secretary of health and human services or an ambassador.
According to court papers, the governor tried to make it known through emissaries, including union officials and fundraisers, that the seat could be had for the right price. Blagojevich allegedly had a salary in mind — $250,000 to $300,000 a year — and spoke of collecting half-million and million-dollar political contributions.
“I’ve got this thing and it’s (expletive) golden,” prosecutors quoted Blagojevich as saying about the Senate appointment on federal bugs in his campaign office and wiretaps on his home telephone, “and I’m just not giving it up for (expletive) nothing. I’m not gonna do it.”
Besides scheming to swap or sell the Senate seat, Blagojevich — a former congressman, state lawmaker and prosecutor — was accused of trying to strong-arm the Chicago Tribune into firing editorial writers who had called for his impeachment.
Blagojevich was charged with two counts: conspiracy to commit fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, and solicitation to commit bribery, which is punishable by up 10 years. He was released on his own recognizance following an afternoon hearing.
Blagojevich becomes the latest in a long line of Illinois governors to become engulfed in scandal. He was elected in 2002 as a reformer promising to clean up after Gov. George Ryan, who is serving six years in prison for graft. He was re-elected to another four-year term in 2006.