Just weeks before he is expected to formally announce his re-election bid, Gov. Rod Blagojevich finds himself defending his administration against a deepening federal investigation of corruption in the state's public pension funds.
For Blagojevich, the defensive posture is in sharp contrast to the reformer image that got him elected by a corruption weary public that embraced his pledge to end tawdry political backroom dealing.On Friday, appearing at an unrelated news conference about winter heating bills, Blagojevich prepared to respond to the heated questions of reporters by first asking a small woman to move aside from the lectern because "I need a little room for my hands" for his gesticulated answers.
Blagojevich's pitched defense of his first-term Democratic administration came just days before jury selection is scheduled to begin for the federal racketeering trial of his predecessor, former Republican Gov. George Ryan.
The Ryan trial, expected to last as long as four months, has been viewed as troublesome by some Republicans. They believe a daily recitation of alleged wrongdoing under the state's last GOP governor would do little to restore faith and rally voters around a renewed Republican effort to recapture the Executive Mansion next year.
But the allegations contained in a plea agreement with federal prosecutors last week by a prominent national Democratic fundraiser and attorney, Joseph Cari, could pose significant political problems for Blagojevich because they echo some of the insider dealings alleged under Ryan.
In the plea agreement, Cari said he was told by prominent political donor Stuart Levine that a "high ranking Illinois public official" and two of the official's associates were scheming to steer state teacher pension fund business to politically favored firms and individuals who would kick back campaign contributions.
"It creates a huge political problem because it really flies in the face of what is one of the major themes that the governor wants to run for re-election upon," said Kent Redfield, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "There's just an awful lot about this that feels like we've been here before."
Cari pleaded guilty to one count of attempted extortion. Levine, who faces corruption charges for alleged wrongdoing on two state boards, has pleaded not guilty.
Neither the plea agreement by Cari nor a separate but related plea agreement by a former teacher pension fund attorney named the high-ranking state official, who was simply referred to as "Public Official A."
But as a number of news organizations identified Blagojevich as Public Official A, based on unnamed sources, the governor sought to use his acclaimed public relations skills to clear his name.
The Tribune did not identify "Public Official A." It is the newspaper's policy not to accuse people of wrongdoing based on unnamed sources.
But even before Thursday's plea agreements, Blagojevich had found his reputation challenged by a string of investigations at the state and federal level. There are ongoing investigations involving allegations of pay-to-play politics, the exchanging of state board and commission appointments for campaign cash, state agencies engaged in questionable payments to vendors and extortion at the state hospital construction board.
Several Republicans looking to take on Blagojevich next year, but wary of the incumbent's imposing $14 million campaign war chest, quickly seized on the allegations in the plea agreements to try to advance their own campaigns.
Referring to Blagojevich as among a breed of "photo-op politicians," state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger (R-Elgin) noted that already scandal-tarred Republicans "damn well better nominate a gubernatorial candidate who comes to the table with clean hands."
Chicago businessman Ronald Gidwitz said the plea agreements were evidence that "a culture of corruption continues to plague our state," and state Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) said the allegations represent "the part of the iceberg that lies below the surface" of Blagojevich's administration.
Blagojevich referred to the Republican piling on by saying it was "grossly, recklessly irresponsible to try to play partisan politics" with the federal investigation. But then he quickly noted that "the people making money over there [at the pension funds] in signing finders' fees happen to be members of the other party that had it their way for a long, long time."
Redfield, however, maintained it is the campaign game that is to blame--or, more specifically, Illinois' almost-anything-goes style of campaign finance, which allows donors, be they individuals, businesses or labor unions, to make limitless contributions to politicians.
State campaign finance records show Cari gave Blagojevich $15,000 after the Democrat's election, but also donated $3,666 to his unsuccessful 2002 Republican opponent, Jim Ryan. Levine was Jim Ryan's top donor, having given more than $787,000 to the former state attorney general in Ryan's public career. But Levine also provided Blagojevich with more than $4,200 in plane travel after the Democrat's election.
"The [campaign finance] system, the way we've constructed it, really provides the opportunity, and with corrupt people, they are much less restrained," Redfield said. "Our expectations [of politicians] are too low and our standards are too low, and then our politicians live up to them. The public has to demand more."