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Blagojevich indictment outlines more pay-to-play schemes

Illinois' ex-governor asserts his innocence, saying he'll 'fight in the courts' to clear his name.

By Correspondent / April 2, 2009

In this Jan. 29 file photo, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich talks to the media outside of his home.

Nam Y. Huh/AP/File

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Chicago

Federal indictments handed down Thursday against former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and five associates present a picture of an administration that, at its very inception, sought to trade official actions for personal enrichment – in direct opposition to Mr. Blagojevich's campaign promise to clean up government corruption.

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The indictments by a federal grand jury point to a "wide-ranging scheme to deprive the people of Illinois of honest government," according to a statement from the US Attorney’s office in Chicago. Government prosecutors did not make any public appearances upon the return of the indictments, which are part of an extensive government corruption probe.

The indictment charges Blagojevich with 11 counts of wire fraud, two counts of extortion conspiracy, and one each of racketeering conspiracy, attempted extortion, and making false statements to federal agents, dating back to 2002. Collectively, the counts against Blagojevich amount to a maximum of 305 years in prison. Charged with Blagojevich were five associates, including his brother, Robert Blagojevich, for a total count of 19 indictments.

Power politics

Alleging “pervasive fraud,” the indictments present a detailed picture of the pay-to-play politics that have long been associated with Illinois state politics and that sent George Ryan, Blagojevich’s immediate predecessor, to prison in 2008. According to the indictment, Blagojevich sought to leverage state political appointments, contracts, legislation, and pension fund investments in exchange for campaign contributions and jobs for himself and others. This includes allegedly conspiring to sell or trade the US Senate seat vacated by President Obama and allegedly pressuring the Chicago Tribune to fire editorial board members critical of the former governor in exchange for state assistance to the Tribune Company’s plan to sell Wrigley Field.

The former governor released a statement that said he was “saddened and hurt but I am not surprised by the indictment. I am innocent. I now will fight in the courts to clear my name. I would ask the good people of Illinois to wait for the trial and afford me the presumption of innocence that they would give to all their friends and neighbors.”

That the indictment dates back to before Blagojevich became governor is not a surprise to those who have tracked Illinois politics.

The corruption has "been true since he’s been running for governor. It’s pay-to-play politics, which was mostly created by his need to raise enormous sums of money in order to be able to run,” says Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has researched and written about state corruption for more than 20 years.

“He has done some things that are good for the little guy, as he would put it, but overall where he really became corrupt was when he had to raise major sums of money," says Dr. Simpson. "You have to have $20 million minimum to run; he’s been amassing $30 [million] to $50 million. He could not conceivably do it legally,” said Mr. Simpson.

A hospital shakedown?

The indictment details allegations of attempted extortion against an unnamed congressman, bribe solicitations from individual businessmen and companies, as well as pressure against state contractors to grant Blagojevich’s wife a job. Another charge alleges that Blagojevich attempted to extort Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago for $50,000 in campaign contributions with the threat that the state would increase the amount the hospital would have to pay for Medicaid reimbursement for specialty-care pediatric physicians.