Efforts to sell Obama’s Senate seat part of a “political corruption crime spree”

Nancy Stone/The Chicago Tribune/AP

Federal law enforcement officials were scathing in their description of an alleged attempt by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich to sell the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama, calling it “a truly new low” and a “political corruption crime spree.”

The governor’s conduct “would make Lincoln roll over his grave,” said Patrick Fitzgerald, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois at a nationally televised press conference.

The government’s 76-page affidavit also charges the Democratic governor with threatening to withhold state assistance to the Tribune Company’s effort to sell Wrigley Field.  It was part of an attempt to get the Chicago Tribune to fire editorial board members who had written critically of him.  The document also charges Blagojevich with trying to arrange campaign contributions in return for official actions.

The Governor and his chief of staff, John Harris, were each charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and solicitation of bribery.

Illinois:  a corruption contender

If Illinois is not “the most corrupt state in the United States, it is certainly one hell of a competitor” said Robert Grant, Special Agent-in-Charge of the Chicago Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A spokesman for Blagojevich, Lucio Guerrero, told the Associated Press the Governor’s office had no immediate comment on the charges.  In a statement, Guerrero said the “allegations do nothing to impact the services, duties, or function of the State.”

Fitzgerald said there was “no reference in the complaint’ to the president-elect and cautioned the press to “not cast aspersions on people” for being mentioned in the government’s filing if they were not indicted.

A grim wake-up call

Special Agent Grant said he called Governor Blagojevich at “about 6 o’clock” Tuesday morning to tell him two FBI agents were at the door of his home with a warrant for his arrest.   The governor was asleep when the call came.  As is standard practice, the Governor was handcuffed before being taken away. His wife was awake and the FBI said his children were “stirring.”

Fitzgerald and Grant were scheduled to appear later today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Nan Nolan in U.S. District Court in Chicago to present the case.

A need for citizen action

While lauding his law enforcement colleagues for their work on the case, especially those who monitored court authorized wiretaps at the governor’s home and campaign office, Fitzgerald called on the public to share information about alleged corruption with law enforcement. “The real effort to stop corruption will start with the citizenry,” he said.

Fitzgerald praised the Chicago Tribune for not prematurely disclosing information it had about the investigation.  The Tribune Company wants to sell the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field to reduce a massive debt load that caused the company to file for bankruptcy on Monday.

Angry at the editorial writers

The government alleges that Blagojevich told his chief of staff to warn Tribune that assistance from the Illinois Finance Authority would be withheld unless members of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, who had called for Blagojevich’s impeachment, were fired.  The assistance was worth up to $100 million in tax savings.

Fitzgerald called it “an extortionate attempt against the Chicago Tribune newspaper.”

Selling the golden seat

The government said it overheard the governor as he discussed obtaining a “substantial salary” for himself with a nonprofit organization; placing his wife on a corporate board where he speculated she might make $150,000 a year; up front cash in campaign funds; or a cabinet post or ambassadorship.

“I want to make money,” the government affidavit quotes Blagojevich as saying.  He is alleged to have said about Obama’s Senate seat, “I’ve got this thing and it’s [expletive] golden.”

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