As the saga of Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his alleged “political corruption crime spree” has played out over the past two weeks, it’s been an unwelcome distraction for another politician from Illinois: President-elect Obama.
The Obama team hoped to put to rest some of the speculation with its own findings, issued Tuesday, claiming that transition team contacts with the Blagojevich administration were limited and involved no impropriety.
“We are satisfied that there was nothing inappropriate that took place here ... between transition officials and the governor’s office,” said Greg Craig, the incoming White House counsel who completed the internal report, in a phone call with reporters late Tuesday.
Nor, concludes the report, did Mr. Obama or any members of his transition team ever hear a suggestion that Governor Blagojevich “expected a personal benefit in return for making this appointment to the Senate.”
Obama and his aides have not been implicated in the case so far, and the former Illinois senator has never had a close relationship with Blagojevich. But the fact that the juiciest of the allegations involve the governor’s apparent attempts to “sell” Obama’s vacated Senate seat – and his hopes that he might gain something of value from Obama for naming the president-elect’s preferred candidate – has been enough for some critics to claim that the charges taint Obama, or at least his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, the only transition-team official to have had direct contact with Blagojevich.
Blagojevich, according to the snippets of wiretapped material released in the affidavit, had hoped he could get something from the president-elect by appointing the woman he believed to be Obama’s choice for the seat: Valerie Jarrett, a close Obama adviser who later took herself out of the running and instead accepted a top White House position.
At various times, Blagojevich speculated about getting a cabinet position, an ambassadorship, a high-paying job with a union organization (as part of a “three-way” deal that would have involved himself, the Service Employees International Union, and Obama), or a well-paying job at a private foundation or political organization set up by Obama.
When such offers weren’t forthcoming, according to the tapes, Blagojevich complained that “they’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation” and used obscenities to describe Obama and his team. “If I don’t get what I want and I’m not satisfied with it, then I’ll just take the Senate seat myself,” he said at another time. In yet another permutation of possible outcomes, the governor said that if Obama’s people “feel like they can do this and not [expletive] give me anything ... then I’ll [expletive] go [with Senate Candidate 5],” later revealed to be US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
The Obama team’s internal report has been ready since Dec. 15 but was not made public at the request of US attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, so that his office could interview Obama, Mr. Emanuel, and Ms. Jarrett. It confirmed that Emanuel had “one or two conversations” with Blagojevich within a few days of the election. The two discussed Emanuel’s own House seat and potential candidates to replace him, and Emanuel recommended Jarrett as a candidate for the Senate seat. He subsequently learned that Obama had ruled out recommending any one candidate, according to the report.
Later, Emanuel had “about four” conversations about the Senate seat with John Harris, Blagojevich’s chief of staff, who has also been charged in the case, the Craig report found. Emanuel relayed the names of four people whom he said Obama believed to be qualified for the post: state veterans affairs chief Tammy Duckworth, Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, and Representative Jackson. Emanuel later presented several other names, including Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Chicago Urban League president Cheryle Jackson, to add to the list the governor was considering.
“There was no discussion of a cabinet position, of a 501c(4) [a political nonprofit organization], of a private-sector position, or of any other personal benefit to the governor in exchange for the Senate appointment,” the report concludes.
While the report stated that Emanuel was the only person in Obama’s inner circle to have direct contact with the governor or his chief of staff, it also said that an SEIU official told Jarrett on Nov. 7 that Blagojevich wanted to be considered for secretary of Health and Human Services in the new administration. Jarrett and the SEIU official agreed that “it would never happen,” the Craig report said.
The Obama team prepared its report without having access to the tape-recordings that provide most of the material in the Blagojevich case, and the possibility exists that Emanuel said things that, while not illegal, are embarrassing.
Emanuel is “known for colorful phrasing and blunt talk, and he could well have said something he didn’t expect to be [made] public,” says Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Chicago and a former Chicago alderman.
Professor Simpson, like others, expects that the Blagojevich case will continue to be a liability, or at least a distraction, for Obama, as his critics try to link the president-elect with the tarnished governor with whom he shares a home city. But with Blagojevich himself having cursed Obama for not offering anything, Simpson adds, most reasonable people should conclude that Obama did not make improper overtures to attempt to influence Blagojevich’s decision.
One negative for Obama is that the Blagojevich saga is likely to extend over the next year or two, with renewed media interest if the governor is impeached, indicted, or goes to trial.
“Anytime something comes out with the Blagojevich case, there’s going to be a mention of Obama in there whether it’s needed or not.... It’s a drip, drip, drip that’s going to continue even if there’s no ‘there’ there,” says Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Springfield. “It doesn’t appear to be a major thing at this point, but given the problems [Obama’s team] is facing, anything that detracts from them getting their message across or takes energy away from what they want to focus on isn’t a positive.”
On Dec. 19, Blagojevich, in his first public comments since his arrest 10 days earlier, declared his innocence. “I’m not going to quit a job that people hired me to do because of false accusations and a political lynch mob,” he told reporters, after which he took no questions.
The Illinois House committee investigating impeachment, meanwhile, has adjourned until Dec. 29. Mr. Fitzgerald denied the committee’s request to see certain documents and for help with witnesses, saying that doing so would compromise his investigation. The committee eventually may get access, however, to the tape recordings of Blagojevich’s conversations.