Those of us who have followed Illinois politics for any length of time are tempted to give the Rod Blagojevich arrest and pending indictment a quick shrug, a knowing smile, and a cynical sigh of know-it-all arrogance. "We've seen this before in Illinois, nothing new here, just move along" is the condescending response to questions from out-of-staters that usually suffice when some Illinois politico is caught with his fingers in the taxpayer's cookie jar.
But the Blagojevich True Crime Drama is not criminality as usual in Illinois politics. The malfeasance of Governor Rod Blagojevich is so outrageous, so brazen, so breathtaking in its scope and character that even jaded journalistic hacks whose beat has been the statehouse for years are shocked. In the long history of official Illinois corruption, the Blagojevich schemes to personally enrich himself, enrich his cronies, and use the power of his office to further his nefarious designs are unprecedented.
"I want to make money" the Governor was heard admitting on tape. Evidently, the opportunities that presented themselves for Blagojevich to clean up were too tempting to pass up. Here's a partial list of the charges via the Chicago Tribune:
Prosecutors alleged Blagojevich sought appointment as Secretary of Health and Human Services, secretary of the Energy Department or gain an ambassadorship in the new Obama administration, or get a lucrative job with a union in exchange for appointing a union-preferred candidate. An Obama spokesman had no immediate comment.
Blagojevich also was alleged to be using a favors list, made up largely of individuals and firms that have state contracts or received taxpayer benefits, from which to conduct a $2.5 million fundraising drive before year's end when a new tougher law on campaign donations, prompted by the governor's voracious fundraising, would take effect.
Even Blagojevich's recently announced $1.8 billion plan for new interchanges and "green lanes" on the Illinois Tollway was subject to corruption, prosecutors alleged. The criminal complaint alleges Blagojevich expected an unnamed highway concrete contractor to raise a half-million dollars for his campaign fund in exchange for state money for the tollway project. "If they don't perform, (expletive) ‘em," Blagojevich said, according to the complaint.
Blagojevich and Harris also allegedly conspired to demand the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial board members responsible for editorials critical of Blagojevich in exchange for state help with the sale of Wrigley Field, the Chicago Cubs baseball stadium owned by Tribune Co.
In addition, federal prosecutors alleged Blagojevich and Harris, along with others, obtained and sought to gain financial benefits for the governor, members of his family and his campaign fund in exchange for appointments to state boards and commissions, state jobs and state contracts.
The big news, of course, is the governor's attempt to sell the senate seat of Barack Obama. Incredibly, it appears that he tried to get the best deal by shopping the seat to as many as 7 potential candidates -- including, indirectly, Barack Obama.
Blogger Joseph Cannon of Cannonfire details the offer to an unnamed high level Obama advisor (evidence suggests it is newly-designated chief of staff Rahm Emanuel). Blagojevich was pushing what Cannon calls "a wacky scheme" where the governor would take over control of a not for profit group -- a 501c(4) -- set up by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates (who would act at the behest of Obama) in exchange for appointing Obama's choice for the senate seat -- his longtime friend and advisor Valerie Jarrett. This is directly from the criminal complaint: (PDF) that details several conversations caught on a federal wiretap:
The advisor asked ROD BLAGOJEVICH if the 501©(4) is a real effort or just a vehicle to help ROD BLAGOJEVICH. ROD BLAGOJEVICH stated that it is a real effort but also a place for ROD BLAGOJEVICH to go when he is no longer Governor. The advisor said he likes the Change to Win idea better, and notes that it is more likely to happen because it is one step removed from the President-elect.
"Change to Win" is a labor NGO that the governor was interested in heading up. In order to get that job, Blagojevich had to approach the head of the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Andy Stern. The Governor was willing to name a candidate who would be little more than a union toady in order to secure that position. And he was asking "Advisor B" (likely, Emanuel) to make it happen.
...according to Advisor B from the President-elect's perspective, there would be fewer "fingerprints" on the President-elect's involvement with Change to Win because Change to Win already has an existing stream of revenue and, therefore, "you won't have stories in four years that they bought you off."
Was Rahm Emanuel (read Cannon's reasoning on why the evidence points to the chief of staff) making a counter offer to the governor's bribe? It's an interesting question and one that the press may wish to ask the new chief of staff.
In addition to the Obama team, Blagojevich was trying to sell the senate seat to as many as 6 different candidates. One candidate's representative -- "Candidate #5 in the complaint -- allegedly offered Blagojevich a substantial bribe for the office. The governor liked that idea and told an aide that if Obama "didn't give him anything" he would choose Candidate #5.
Who is "Candidate #5?" Speculation is zeroing in on Jesse Jackson, Jr. From the actual complaint via Marc Ambinder:
Blagojevich said that he might be able to cut a deal with Senate Candidate 5 that provided Blagojevich with something "tangible up front." Noting that he was going to meet with Senate Candidate 5 in the next few days, Blagojevich told Fundraiser A to reach out to an intermediary (Individual D), from whom Blagojevich is attempting to obtain campaign contributions and who Blagojevich believes is close to Senate Candidate 5. Blagojevich told Fundraiser A to tell Individual D that Senate Candidate 5 was a very realistic candidate but Blagojevich was getting a lot of pressure not to appoint Senate Candidate 5, according to the affidavit.
The only candidate for the senate seat to meet with Obama in the time period mentioned was Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.
It should be noted that there is absolutely no evidence that Jackson had any knowledge of these representations to Obama made on his behalf by a fundraiser nor is there any evidence that an "intermediary" informed him of the "negotiations.
If you read all 72 pages of the indictment, you just can't help being struck by the money-grubbing nature of the governor and his mania for money. He had schemes within schemes to extract cash from supporters, cronies, and companies who wished to do business with the state.
His "pay to play" program was particularly lucrative. This was a scheme where Blagojevich friend and campaign financier Antoin "Tony" Rezko pressured companies doing business with the state to contribute to the Blagojevich re-election campaign in exchange for lucrative state contracts. Rezko was convicted of 18 counts of fraud in connection with the scheme and the governor's name was prominently mentioned during his trial. Others involved in this scheme include Stuart Levine, a GOP mover and shaker in the state.
At least you can say we here in Illinois are bi-partisan when it comes to corruption.
While the selling of the senate seat and pay to play complaints got the most headlines, perhaps the most incredible of all the charges alleged against Blagojevich is his attempted shakedown of the Chicago Tribune.
The Trib not only owns the Chicago Tribune but also the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Owner Sam Zell (who has just filed for bankruptcy) is trying to sell the team and, more importantly, one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in Chicago: Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs.
But the sale of Wrigley field will involve massive taxes -- something on the order of $100 million dollars in capital gains. Zell had a approached the Illinois Finance Authority (IFA) in order to strike a deal where, according to the criminal complaint, the IFA would take title to Wrigley Field thus saving Zell a lot of cash.
Enter Blagojevich, who told his chief of staff John Harris (also arrested yesterday) to make it clear to Zell that no help from the IFA would be forthcoming unless some members of the Chicago Tribune editorial board were fired.
In a November 4 phone call with Harris, Blagojevich told his aide ""our recommendation is fire all those [expletive] people, get ‘em the [expletive] out of there and get us some editorial support."
Harris reported back on November 11 that Zell "got the message and is very sensitive to the issue." Later, Harris told Blagojevich that there were "certain corporate reorganizations and budget cuts coming and, reading between the lines, he's (Zell) going after that section."
No firings have taken place yet and it is doubtful that Zell will make a move now that this deal is in the open. I suppose he saw it as a cost of doing business and $100 million is a lot of cash. But the thought that he would buckle to the whims of this strutting peacock of a politician who wanted journalists, who were only doing the job they were being paid to do, axed because they were telling the truth about his corruption stinks of rank cowardice.
No doubt over the next few days many aspects of this story will be fleshed out. We will almost certainly be treated to some fancy footwork by the Obama team as they seek to avoid the appearance that anyone connected with the new president came within a country mile of Blagojevich. That may be difficult to do what with the taped conversation between the governor and "Advisor B" and unanswered questions about whether Obama actually discussed the appointment of a new senator with the governor or not.
Obama said in his statement he had no contact with Blagojevich. Unfortunately for the new president, his top aide David Axelrod told Fox News on November 23 that Obama had indeed talked with Blagojevich about the senate seat. The transition has since released a statement saying that Axelrod "misspoke" on November 23.
And I have a bridge over the Chicago River you can have for a song if you believe that one.
The chances are very good that prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is far from finished. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party in Illinois may be in for a very rough ride as their leader ponders his future -- or lack of one -- and his associates lawyer up in anticipation of legal trouble.
Rick Moran is associate editor of American Thinker and proprietor of the website Rightwing Nuthouse.