Blagojevich trial: How damaging to Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.?

Prosecutors in former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's 'pay-to-play' trial say US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) of Illinois was directly involved in a potential $1 million offer to win a US Senate seat.

By , Staff writer

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    Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) of Illinois has been subpoenaed to testify at the corruption trial of ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Jackson strongly denies any involvement in Blagojevich's alleged scheme to offer a US Senate seat in return for contributions.
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Federal prosecutors say US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) of Illinois was directly involved in a potential $1 million offer to win a US Senate seat controlled by former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Representative Jackson’s involvement was brought up Wednesday in federal court in downtown Chicago, where Mr. Blagojevich is on trial facing 24 counts of fraud, conspiracy, bribery, and racketeering related to a pay-to-play scheme involving the Senate seat formerly held by President Obama.

What makes the allegation significant is that this is the first time prosecutors have said publicly that Jackson met with Blagojevich representatives, offering to raise money for the former governor at the same time Blagojevich was seeking money in exchange for the Senate seat appointment.

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Jackson has strongly denied any direct involvement with Blagojevich ever since the former governor was arrested and charged outside his home in December 2008.

“I never sent a message or an emissary to the governor to make an offer, plead my case, or propose a deal about a US Senate seat, period,” he wrote in a statement released several days after Blagojevich’s arrest.

Jackson is not charged in the case. A phone call to his Washington office seeking comment Thursday was not returned.

Jackson and Blagojevich negotiated though prominent businessmen from Chicago’s North Side Indian community, prosecutors say.

Senate seat discussed at restaurant meeting

Rajinder Bedi, who worked for Blagojevich, testified Wednesday that he met with Jackson and Raghuveer Nayak, a Jackson supporter and fundraiser, in a downtown Loop restaurant on Oct. 28, 2008. There, Mr. Bedi said, Jackson expressed interest in the Senate seat and the discussion turned to political fundraising.

In that conversation, Bedi said Mr. Nayak discussed the possibility of Jackson raising at least $1 million to influence the Senate selection in his favor.

When he denied any wrongdoing, Jackson never volunteered that the meeting took place.

Jurors also listened to audiotapes of wiretaps, which show Blagojevich’s surprise and, later, interest in Jackson’s overtures. In one conversation, recorded Oct. 31, 2008, a few days after the restaurant meeting, former deputy governor Robert Greenlee is heard discussing Jackson.

“I’m tellin’ ya, that guy’s shameless,” Mr. Greenlee is heard saying.

“Unbelievable isn’t it … we were approached, pay to play. That, you know, he’d raise me 500 grand, an emissary came, then the other guy would raise a million, if I made him a senator,” Blagojevich replies.

Before Jackson was linked with Blagojevich, he enjoyed a relatively untarnished image in Illinois politics.

He was one of the few figures outside of Chicago’s tightly controlled political machine considered a viable challenger to longtime Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Jackson announced his candidacy to run against Mayor Daley in early 2006 but left the race months later, saying he was best suited to helping Democrats control Congress, when his party won majority rule that November.

His congressional district stretches from Chicago’s South Side to the rural outposts of Chicago’s Southwest suburbs, which means his support crosses several demographic lines, particularly race. Obama helped raise Jackson’s national profile when he picked him as national co-chairman for his successful presidential campaign.

Jackson also managed to step outside the large shadow of his father, civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Unlike his father, whose own political ambitions foundered, the younger Jackson was starting to build a political machine of his own, which at front and center featured his wife, Sandi Jackson, a Chicago alderwoman.

The buzz around Jesse Jackson Jr.

Because of their charisma, good looks, and savvy political dealmaking, the couple was once considered “Chicago’s future first family,” says Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a Chicago-based nonprofit that urges governmental transparency. “There was a buzz around them that politicians love to have.”

Ms. Canary says Wednesday’s testimony “has the potential of hurting [Jackson] tremendously.”

Prosecutors say Blagojevich later warmed to the idea of picking Jackson, but wanted to make sure the congressman would deliver on fundraising.

“I can cut a better political deal with these Jacksons … but some of it can be tangible upfront," Blagojevich is heard telling his brother Robert in a phone call recorded Dec. 4, 2008.

Blagojevich directed his brother to set up a meeting with Nayak, Jackson’s representative. But the meeting was canceled once The Chicago Tribune broke the story that the former governor was under federal investigation.

Canary says it is surprising that Jackson was willing to risk dealing with Blagojevich at a time when it was widely known – even to the governor – that he was under investigation.

“In those final months in office he was toxic. Everybody knew,” she says. “He was absolutely radioactive but some seemed willing to try to take that on.”

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