Illinois governor charged in Obama successor probe

Rod Blagojevich arrested after prosecutors said he was caught on wiretaps audaciously scheming to sell Obama's vacant Senate seat.

Blagojevich 88 (photo credit: )
Blagojevich 88
(photo credit: )
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was roused from bed and arrested Tuesday after prosecutors said he was caught on wiretaps audaciously scheming to sell Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat for cash or a plum job for himself in the new administration. "I've got this thing and it's (expletive) golden," the 51-year-old Democrat said of his authority to appoint Obama's replacement, "and I'm just not giving it up for (expletive) nothing. I'm not gonna do it." Prosecutors did not accuse Obama himself of any wrongdoing or even knowing about the matter. The president-elect said: "I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so I was not aware of what was happening." FBI agents arrested the governor before daybreak at his Chicago home and took him away while his family was still asleep, saying the wiretaps convinced them that Blagojevich's "political corruption crime spree" had to be stopped before it was too late. "The Senate seat, as recently as days ago, seemed to be on the verge of being auctioned off," U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said. "The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave." Federal investigators bugged the governor's campaign offices and tapped his home phone, capturing conversations laced with profanity and tough-guy talk from the governor. Chicago FBI chief Robert Grant said even seasoned investigators were stunned by what they heard, particularly since the governor had known for at least three years that he was under investigation for alleged hiring fraud and clearly realized agents might be listening in. The FBI said in court papers that the governor was overheard conspiring to sell the Senate seat for campaign cash or lucrative jobs for himself or his wife, Patti, 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 appointed as 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 also spoke of collecting half-million and million-dollar political contributions. The governor has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. As recently as Monday, he told reporters: "I don't care whether you tape me privately or publicly. I can tell you that whatever I say is always lawful." The governor's attorney, Sheldon Sorosky, said 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," Sorosky said. The charges do not identify by name any of the political figures under consideration for the Senate seat, referring to them only as "Candidate 1," "Candidate 2," and so on. However, those being considered for the post include: Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett, Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr., Danny Davis, Jan Schakowsky and Luis Gutierrez; Illinois Senate President Emil Jones; and Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs Director Tammy Duckworth. Fitzgerald did not address whether any of the potential Senate candidates crossed the line themselves and could face charges. And it was unclear from court papers whether the governor or his aides spoke directly to the candidates. 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. Blagojevich, a former congressman, state lawmaker and prosecutor, also was charged with illegally threatening to withhold state assistance to Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune, in an attempt to strong-arm the newspaper into firing editorial writers who had criticized him. In addition, the governor was accused of engaging in pay-to-play politics - that is, doling out jobs, contracts and appointments in return for campaign contributions. Court papers portray Blagojevich as a greedy, vindictive pol who couldn't wait to find ways to cash in on the Senate appointment. The charges also paint a picture of breathtaking arrogance and perhaps cluelessness, with the governor contemplating a Cabinet position or even a run for the White House despite an abysmal 13 percent approval rating and a reputation as one of the most corrupt governors in the nation. 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. The scandal leaves the Senate seat in limbo. Illinois legislative leaders said they were preparing to quickly schedule a special election to fill Obama's seat rather than let Blagojevich pick someone. "No appointment by this governor, under these circumstances, could produce a credible replacement," said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois. Some Illinois politicians immediately demanded that the governor step down or face impeachment. Also arrested was Blagojevich's chief of staff, 46-year-old John Harris, who was accused of taking part in the schemes to enrich the governor. Blagojevich also considered appointing himself to the Senate seat, telling his deputy governor that if "they're not going to offer me anything of value, I might as well take it," prosecutors said. He said becoming a senator might help him avoid impeachment and also remake his image for a possible presidential run in 2016, according to court papers. And he allegedly said that he would have access to greater resources if he were indicted while in the Senate. Prosecutors said he also talked about getting his wife placed on corporate boards where she might get $150,000 a year in director's fees. In court papers, the FBI said Blagojevich expressed frustration at being "stuck" as governor. "I want to make money," the governor, whose salary is $177,412, was quoted as saying in one conversation. The head of the FBI's office in Chicago said he phoned Blagojevich at 6 a.m., telling him of a warrant for his arrest and informing him there were two FBI agents at his door. Blagojevich's first comment was, "Is this a joke?" Grant said. The governor was led away in handcuffs. Nothing in the court papers suggested Obama had any part in the discussions about selling the Senate seat or knew of them. In fact, Blagojevich was overheard complaining at one point that Obama's people are "not going to give me anything except appreciation." He added: "(Expletive) them." Authorities said Blagojevich was hoping to raise $2.5 million by the end of the year and decided to speed up his "crime spree" before a state anti-corruption law takes effect Jan. 1. The governor had vetoed the law, but the Legislature overrode his veto. The incriminating conversations took place even before Election Day and continued as recently as last week. On the recordings, Blagojevich warned one person not to use the phone and said, "The whole world is listening. You hear me?" 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. And Blagojevich's chief fundraiser goes on trial next year on obstruction charges. The court papers also outline Blagojevich conversations related to Tribune Co., which has been hoping for state aid in selling Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs. Blagojevich was quoted as telling his chief of staff, Harris, in a profanity-laced Nov. 4 conversation that Tribune executives should fire the editorial writers "and get us some editorial support." Harris was later overheard telling the governor on Nov. 11 that an unnamed Tribune owner, presumably CEO Sam Zell, "got the message and is very sensitive to the issue."