They showed up at Rod Blagojevich's home before the sun.
By daylight, federal agents had arrested and handcuffed the governor, throwing him -- and all of Illinois -- into one of the most momentous and absurd times in the state's sordid political history.It's been nearly a year since Dec. 9, 2008, when then-Gov. Blagojevich was roused from his bed and hit with an array of criminal charges that included the extraordinary accusation he tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated when Barack Obama was elected president.
But after weeks of banner headlines that would have exhausted a lesser scandal, the Blagojevich story remains in the limelight -- thanks largely to the ex-governor's incessant pursuit of publicity.
Instead of hiding behind the shame of an indictment, impeachment and ouster from office -- and keeping his mouth shut before trial like so many politicians before him -- Blagojevich has done the opposite. He's made two national tours to proclaim his innocence. He's released a book. He's hosted radio talk shows.
The glib, camera-loving Chicago Democrat has seemed remarkably unfazed throughout it all, while Illinoisans and observers around the country have watched a story that spans from the scandalous to the surreal.
In late January, Blagojevich was making an impassioned but fruitless speech to save his job before state lawmakers, who made him the first governor impeached and banned from Illinois public office for life. Days later, he was fulfilling a dream of bantering with the host on "The Late Show with David Letterman."
"Well, you know, I've been wanting to be on your show in the worst way for the longest time," Blagojevich told Letterman.
"Well, you're on in the worst way," Letterman deadpanned. "Believe me."
In the ensuing months, Blagojevich performed a song by his hero Elvis at a block party and joked about female anatomy with shock jock Howard Stern. He sent his wife to Costa Rica to eat bugs in a jungle-based reality show and secured his own spot as a contestant on the spring edition of Donald Trump's TV show "Celebrity Apprentice."
That came with a warning from a federal judge to watch what he says lest he prejudice his own criminal case. But some observers have suggested that the ex-governor's effort to transform his image from disgraced politician to celebrity is a conversion that could help him with a jury pool in his trial scheduled for mid-2010.
His fellow Democrats definitely would prefer he keep quiet. While Blagojevich prepares for what could be a months-long trial in the middle of statewide elections, they will be trying to hold on to the job he lost and the Senate seat he's accused of peddling.
It wasn't long ago that Democrats, led by Blagojevich, were gleefully reminding voters about the corruption scandal of Republican ex-Gov. George Ryan, who now sits in federal prison. Now they're the ones who fear a backlash at the ballot box.
While no Republicans hold statewide office or control either chamber of the General Assembly, it was only a scant 15 years ago when the reverse was true, a stark reminder that voters are fickle and allegiances can change fast.
"I think a big question will be what message does the electorate collectively send in these two elections we have in 2010," said Patrick Collins, a former federal prosecutor who led the corruption case against Ryan and chaired the reform commission created by Gov. Pat Quinn after Blagojevich's ouster. Voters should demand a "core level of integrity in all of their public officials," Collins said.
Democrats who rallied around Blagojevich's reformer image in 2002 and stuck with him amid the early signs of scandal in 2006 have scrambled to take the lead in ousting the governor and trying to scrub the capital clean. Republicans have led the criticism that it's too little and too late for a ruling party that looked the other way for political gain.
Since Blagojevich's arrest, the trickle of details about the alleged corruption has become a steady stream as his two former chiefs of staff have both pleaded guilty and agreed to testify about schemes in which they allege the governor and his allies sought to trade government favors for personal gain -- everything from legislation to help racetracks to state funding for a children's hospital.
Blagojevich's top fundraiser, Christopher Kelly, facing pressure from prosecutors to cooperate against his longtime friend, died days before he was to begin serving an eight-year sentence on unrelated corruption charges. Authorities ruled the death a suicide, saying Kelly overdosed on pills.
In October, one of Blagojevich's closest friends and advisers, Alonzo Monk, said in a plea agreement that he, Blagojevich, and fundraisers Antoin "Tony" Rezko and Kelly met repeatedly to talk about lucrative schemes with the idea they could split the money later.
Monk's successor, John Harris, alleged that Blagojevich viewed the Senate seat vacated by Obama as a bargaining chip that could be exchanged for money or a job.
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