Feds arrest Illinois governor for corruption

Blagojevich ‘corruptly used his office,’ US says after a wiretap probe.

M. Spencer Green/AP/File
Arrested: Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) faces federal fraud and bribery charges.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested Tuesday on federal corruption charges, including that he conspired “to sell or trade” an appointment to the US Senate seat being vacated by President-elect Obama.

The arrest makes Governor Blagojevich, a Democrat, the second Illinois chief executive in a row to face charges of pay-to-play politics, a dispiriting event for residents weary of the state’s reputation for seamy politics. His predecessor, Republican George Ryan, is serving a 6-1/2-year sentence for a corruption conviction two years ago.

“The breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering,” US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said Tuesday in a statement. “They allege that Blagojevich put a ‘for sale’ sign on the naming of a United States senator; involved himself personally in pay-to-play schemes with the urgency of a salesman meeting his annual sales target; and corruptly used his office in an effort to trample editorial voices of criticism.”

Blagojevich was arrested along with his chief of staff, John Harris. Each was charged with conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud and solicitation of bribery. At a press conference, Mr. Fitzgerald characterized the governor’s actions as “a political corruption crime spree.”

Blagojevich appeared before US Magistrate Judge Nan Nolan Tuesday afternoon and was released on his own recognizance and a $4,500 bond, without making a statement.

Included in the FBI affidavit are charges that Blagojevich was caught on wiretaps conspiring to sell or trade Mr. Obama’s vacated US Senate seat. On the wiretaps, the affidavit asserts, the governor speculated about trading the Senate appointment for perks such as a large salary for himself, once he leaves office, at an organization affiliated with labor unions; an appointment for his wife on corporate boards, where she might be paid as much as $150,000 a year; promises of campaign funds; and a cabinet post or ambassadorship for himself.

In one conversation about the Senate seat, Blagojevich allegedly told Mr. Harris and an adviser he needed to consider his family and that he is “financially” hurting. Harris responded that he and the adviser were weighing what would help the Blagojevich family’s “financial security.”

The affidavit also details discussions from last week in which Blagojevich is alleged to have said he might “get some [money] up front, maybe” from an individual the government identifies only as “Senate Candidate 5.”

Earlier, he was recorded claiming to have been approached by an emissary from that candidate, who said he would raise $500,000 for Blagojevich in exchange for the seat.

The charges, too, include allegations that Blagojevich and Harris schemed with others since the governor took office in 2003 to obtain benefits for himself, his family, and his campaign committee, repeating, in some cases the testimony of witnesses at the federal trial earlier this year of Antoin “Tony” Rezko. Mr. Rezko, a donor to Blagojevich’s campaign, was convicted for using his connections to state board appointees to demand kickbacks from businesses that wanted to do business with the state.

But the charges focus primarily on events of the past two months, when Blagojevich allegedly sped up corrupt fundraising activities before a new state ethics law took effect, hindering any ability to accept financial contributions from anyone with a state contract. The allegations include documented instances in which the governor told individuals that he expected contributions ranging from $50,000 to $500,000 in exchange for state help and contracts. In one case, when the expected contribution from an executive of Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago didn’t come, Blagojevich discussed rescinding $8 million in state funds committed to the hospital, the affidavit says.

It also alleges that Blagojevich sought the firing of Chicago Tribune editors responsible for negative editorials about him, in exchange for state help with the sale of Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs and owned by the Tribune Co.

Blagojevich was the first Democratic governor elected in the state in 30 years, winning in part because of a backlash against former Governor Ryan, who faced corruption scandals at the end of his term. Blagojevich campaigned with a reformist message, promising to change politics as usual in Illinois.

“He’s done everything possible contrary to that pledge,” says Jay Stewart of the Better Government Association, a nonpartisan Chicago watchdog group. “The governor hasn’t been convicted yet, but the court of public opinion and common sense tells you that something is deeply, deeply wrong with Illinois government.”

Besides dealing a blow to the state’s psyche and national image, Blagojevich’s arrest casts a shadow over the appointment of Obama’s successor to the Senate. Any Blagojevich appointment will appear tainted, Mr. Stewart says.

On Tuesday, several Illinois politicians called for ways in which the open Senate seat could be filled without Blagojevich's involvement. Illinois Senate President Emil Jones promised to call lawmakers back into session to consider a bill for a special election to fill the seat.

The charges also come at a terrible time for a state facing a severe budget shortfall.

“Our financial crisis is now,” Stewart says, noting that, until convicted, Blagojevich is still governor. “This governor had difficulty getting things done in a less difficult environment.”

Rumors about Blagojevich’s involvement in pay-to-play schemes and inflammatory evidence from the Rezko trial have persisted for at least a year. His approval ratings have been hovering at a paltry 13 percent.

The arrest was “the whole notion of not whether, but when,” says Paul Green, a political scientist at Roosevelt University in Chicago. “You expect it, it’s still shocking, but it’s not a huge surprise.”

If Blagojevich is convicted, Illinois faces the prospect of having two former governors in jail, and future officeholders can expect heavy pressure to enact ethics reforms. One issue, says Professor Green, is the large amount of money required to run for statewide office in Illinois.

“We need to deal with the specific instances that led to this, and then we need to look at systemic issues that lead to this kind of conduct,” says Stewart. “If this isn’t evidence that our system is fundamentally corrupt, then I don’t know what is.”

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