Barack Obama’s White House transition team released a report Tuesday that concluded the president-elect had no contact with Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich or his office and that no one acting on Obama’s behalf was involved in any quid pro quo allegedly sought by the governor to fill Obama’s vacant Senate seat.
Incoming White House counsel Gregory Craig said that Obama; his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel; and advisor Valerie Jarrett all submitted to interviews with U.S. Atty. Patrick J. Fitzgerald last week as part of an ongoing criminal investigation of Blagojevich.
Emanuel was the only member of the transition team who had direct conversations with the governor about possible candidates for the Illinois Senate seat, said Craig, adding that there was no deal-making. The attorney also said that neither Jarrett nor David Axelrod, another senior Obama advisor, had any contact with Blagojevich or his office.
Craig put the report together after Blagojevich’s Dec. 9 arrest on allegations of engaging in a scheme to sell the vacant U.S. Senate seat, as well as other state appointments and services. It is the first major controversy confronting the incoming administration -- and one that caused the transition team to respond tentatively until Tuesday.
The report said that Illinois Deputy Gov. Louanner Peters approached Eric Whitaker, a close friend of Obama’s, in search of information about “who, if anyone, had the authority to speak for the president-elect,” and that Emanuel had “one or two” telephone conversations with Blagojevich.
“They spoke about Mr. Emanuel’s House seat, when he would be resigning and potential candidates to replace him. He also had a brief discussion with the governor about the Senate seat and the merits of various people whom the governor might consider,” the report said. “Mr. Emanuel and the governor did not discuss a Cabinet position . . . a private-sector position for the governor or any other personal benefit for the governor.”
In a conference call with reporters, Craig characterized Emanuel’s conversations with Blagojevich as innocent and appropriate. Emanuel, who is on a family vacation in Africa, was unavailable for comment Tuesday. Fitzgerald previously has said that neither Obama nor his aides were targets of the federal investigation.
Still, Craig’s report did not include transcripts of any of the conversations Emanuel had with Blagojevich or with the governor’s chief of staff at the time, John Harris. Those conversations were recorded as part of the federal inquiry. Craig did not respond when asked whether he had tried to obtain the transcripts.
During Emanuel’s meeting with Fitzgerald last week, he listened to the recordings of his conversations, said Robert Gibbs, incoming White House press secretary. Craig said the Emanuel calls to Harris included a discussion of the “merits and the strategic benefit” that each candidate would bring to the Senate seat.
Obama has portrayed himself as taking a hands-off approach to the governor’s decision about whom to appoint to his former Senate seat. But the report noted that he was very much interested in who would succeed him.
Once Jarrett said she was not interested in becoming a senator, Obama asked Emanuel to tell the governor that he would like him to consider Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes and Tammy Duckworth, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs -- all of them Democrats.
Later calls between Emanuel and Harris included the addition of two names to Obama’s list of suggestions: Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan and Cheryle Jackson, president and chief executive of the Chicago Urban League and a former Blagojevich spokeswoman.
The report took pains to point out in several places that none of Obama’s senior advisors ever believed that the governor was seeking some sort of benefit for the Senate appointment. It said that Tom Balanoff, head of the Illinois chapter of the Service Employees International Union, told Jarrett that the governor had said he hoped to become secretary of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration.
Balanoff told Jarrett that he told Blagojevich “it would never happen,” and the report said Jarrett agreed with that assessment.
“Mr. Balanoff did not suggest that the governor, in talking about HHS, was linking a position for himself in the Obama Cabinet to the selection of the president-elect’s successor in the Senate, and Ms. Jarrett did not understand the conversation to suggest that the governor wanted the Cabinet seat as a quid pro quo for selecting any specific candidate to be the president-elect’s replacement,” the report said.
Craig told reporters that Jarrett thought Blagojevich’s hopes of joining the Cabinet were “ridiculous,” especially because he was widely known to be under investigation long before his arrest.
Obama, who is vacationing in Hawaii, instructed his staff this month to review all internal contacts with Blagojevich and his office. He said he was eager to release the report, but was asked to delay doing so by federal prosecutors.
“It’s a little bit frustrating,” Obama said last week. “There’s been a lot of speculation in the press that I would love to correct immediately. . . . By next week, you guys will have the answers to all your questions.”
Still, because the report did not include actual transcripts of what was said, questions may linger.
Obama ordered the report after Blagojevich and Harris were arrested on charges that they had tried to barter the Senate seat for the governor’s professional benefit or financial gain. Illinois law grants the governor sole power to fill a Senate vacancy.
On Dec. 15, Obama said the report was complete and that no “inappropriate” contact between his aides and the Blagojevich camp had been found. He said then that its release was being delayed until this week at U.S. Atty. Fitzgerald’s request.
When asked about the Senate seat shortly after the election, Obama said: “There’s going to be a lot of good choices out there, but it is the governor’s decision to make, not mine.”
Since then, the president-elect has declined to comment on whether there is any inconsistency with that statement and a recent Chicago Tribune report that suggested Emanuel had presented a list of acceptable candidates to the Blagojevich administration.