Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois was arrested Tuesday on wide-ranging corruption charges that included an alleged plot to sell the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.
Obama was not accused of wrongdoing. But the scandal’s eruption in the middle of the White House transition cast an unwelcome light on the often-seamy political culture of the state where he launched his career. It also drew new attention to Obama’s personal ties to Antoin Rezko, a Chicago developer convicted in a kickback scheme during the presidential campaign.
In what U.S. Atty. Patrick J. Fitzgerald called a “political corruption crime spree,” Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, conspired to trade the Senate appointment and other state favors for campaign money and jobs for the governor and his wife, prosecutors said.
Blagojevich, a Democrat who ran as a reformer eager to clean up corruption at the statehouse, spoke explicitly about the alleged bribes in profanity-laced conversations captured on FBI wiretaps in the governor’s home and campaign office, authorities said.
Prosecutors said the charges included an attempt to extort the Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.
Blagojevich and Harris threatened to withhold state financing for the company’s sale of Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, unless the Chicago Tribune fired editorial writers who had called for the governor’s impeachment, prosecutors said.
Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, called the two-term governor’s actions “the most staggering crime spree in office I have ever seen.”
He said 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.”
“The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave,” Fitzgerald said.
The governor was awakened at his Chicago home before dawn Tuesday by a phone call from Robert Grant, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Chicago office. Grant told Blagojevich that two agents were at his door with a warrant for his arrest. Blagojevich asked the FBI agent if he was joking, then made his way outside, where he was handcuffed and led away.
Sporting a track suit and running shoes, Blagojevich was released on his own recognizance after a court hearing, having posted a $4,500 bond. He’s still empowered to appoint Obama’s successor in the Senate.
Today is the governor’s 52nd birthday.
“He’s sad, surprised and innocent,” Blagojevich attorney Sheldon Sorosky told reporters outside the governor’s home Tuesday night.
As recently as Monday, Blagojevich told reporters: “I should say if anybody wants to tape my conversations, go right ahead, feel free to do it. . . . [W]hatever I say is always lawful. . . . I don’t believe there’s any cloud that hangs over me; I think there’s nothing but sunshine hanging over me.”
Prosecutors, however, portrayed Blagojevich as a brazen crook. Court papers quoted the governor describing his power to pick Obama’s successor as a golden opportunity to land a job as a U.S. ambassador or secretary of Health and Human Services.
The governor also allegedly suggested that he could make the Senate appointment in exchange for campaign money, a lucrative job at a pro-labor or nonprofit organization for himself or corporate board seats for his wife that would bring the couple up to $150,000 a year.
At one point, he said that if he could not land a profitable enough deal, he would appoint himself to replace Obama, according to a 76-page affidavit from the U.S. attorney’s office. Blagojevich told a deputy governor that if “they’re not going to offer me anything of value, I might as well take it,” prosecutors said.
“I’m just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing,” he said, according to the court papers. “I’m not gonna do it.”
Blagojevich, who has been dogged for several years by corruption allegations, said moving to the Senate might help him avoid impeachment and polish his image for a 2016 presidential run, prosecutors said.
For the president-elect, the case made for a big distraction from transition business. It overshadowed Obama’s meeting in Chicago with former Vice President Al Gore to discuss climate change and energy policy. He told reporters the alleged “pay-to-play” over his Senate replacement caught him by surprise.
“I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so I was not aware of what was happening,” Obama said.
As he worked his way up from the state Senate to the U.S. Senate, Obama was often at odds with the Democratic machine in Chicago. Nonetheless, he built alliances that have at times caused him political troubles.
The governor’s arrest, for example, grew out of the same corruption investigation that led to the conviction of Rezko, a developer whose real estate deal with Obama drew sharp attacks from rivals in the presidential race.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) called on the state Legislature on Tuesday to hold a special election soon to fill Obama’s seat -- rather than leave that power in Blagojevich’s hands.
“No appointment by this governor, under these circumstances, could produce a credible replacement,” Durbin told reporters.
Even in Chicago, a city that has more FBI units to investigate corruption than any other in the nation, the lurid details of the governor’s alleged conduct proved startling.
“If this isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States, it’s certainly one hell of a competitor,” said Grant, the FBI agent. “Even the most cynical agents in our office were shocked.”
Of the 10 Illinois governors who have served over the last 50 years, Blagojevich is the fifth to be charged with criminal conduct. Three were convicted, and one was acquitted.
Among those who wound up in prison was George Ryan, the one-term governor whom Blagojevich succeeded in 2003. Ryan, convicted of fraud and racketeering in 2006, is serving a 6 1/2 -year federal prison sentence in Wisconsin.
As for Blagojevich, he was charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, and solicitation to commit bribery, punishable by up to 10 years.
His “most cynical behavior,” Fitzgerald said, was his effort to sell Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder.
In one recording, Blagojevich reportedly voiced frustration at his inability to have his offers considered. Alluding to Obama’s presumed favorite for the Senate seat, the governor said: “For nothing? [Expletive] him.”
At the time, senior Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett was widely discussed as a potential candidate, but she took herself out of the running. Other contenders for the seat include an Obama mentor, Emil Jones Jr., president of the Illinois Senate, and Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. of Chicago.
John Chase, David Kidwell, Monique Garcia, Susan Kuczka, David Heinzmann and Ray Long of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.
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Illinois, where Democratic Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich was arrested Tuesday on federal corruption charges, has a long history of government corruption. Here are some examples:
1956: State auditor Orville Hodge is convicted of embezzling $2 million in state funds.
1973: Gov. Otto Kerner, a Democratic governor from 1961 to 1968, is convicted on income tax charges involving stock in racetracks acquired while in office.
1980: Atty. Gen. William Scott is convicted on income tax charges involving misuse of campaign funds.
1987: Dan Walker, a Democratic governor from 1973 to 1977, pleads guilty to bank fraud, misapplication of funds and perjury. The charges were not related to his service as governor.
1988: Operation Greylord, a federal probe into the Chicago court system, concludes with convictions and guilty pleas from 87 court personnel and attorneys, including 13 judges.
1996: Rep. Daniel Rostenkowski, a Democrat, pleads guilty to mail fraud charges related to public corruption.
1990s: Operation Silver Shovel, a federal probe into Chicago city government, ends with 18 convictions and guilty pleas from public employees, including six current or former city aldermen.
2006: George Ryan, a Republican governor from 1999 to 2003, is convicted of corruption for steering state contracts and leases to political insiders while he was secretary of state and then governor. He is serving a 6 1/2 -year prison term.
Source: Times wire services