Widespread Corruption Charges Shock Illinois
All the papers give top billing to news that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested yesterday on wide-ranging corruption charges, including an attempt to sell President-elect Barack Obama's recently vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder. Prairie State residents might be used to seeing their executives embroiled in criminal charges—the Los Angeles Timesspecifies that Blagojevich is the fifth Illinois governor to be charged with criminal conduct over the last 50 years—but the arrest yesterday revealed such brazen corruption schemes "that veteran investigators and prosecutors could barely contain their revulsion," notes USA Today. Prosecutors "portrayed Blagojevich as a brazen crook," says the LAT. "The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave," said U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. The Washington Postpoints out that by filing charges in the form of a criminal complaint, U.S. officials were able "to share more details about their investigation and the conversations they captured than would normally appear in a federal grand jury indictment."
Federal authorities have been investigating Blagojevich for more than five years and have been listening on wiretaps for the past two months that leave little to the imagination. While the Illinois governor's alleged illegal activities are far-reaching, most of the papers naturally focus on the claims that he tried to profit from his authority to name a successor for Obama in the senate. "The allegations suggest a breathtaking degree of brazenness on the part of the Illinois governor," says the Wall Street Journal, which points out the governor continued to talk about his schemes by telephone even after the Chicago Tribune reported Friday that his phone lines had been tapped. And it seems his actions on Obama's Senate seat were par for the course. The conversations recorded by authorities "laid bare a 'pay for play' culture that, according to prosecutors, began shortly after he took office in 2002 and continued until before sunrise yesterday," when the governor and his chief of staff were arrested. The New York Timessays that the charges "left many wondering who else might yet be implicated," particularly since it seems some were willing to go along with the governor's schemes to enrich himself.
The 76-page complaint details how Blagojevich and his chief of staff carried out a "political corruption crime spree," as Fitzgerald called it, in an effort to raise as much money as possible from people with state business before an ethics law that bars the practice takes effect in January. The governor allegedly discussed withholding state funds from a children's hospital until its chief executive would write a $50,000 check and tried to use his political clout to get some editorial writers at the Chicago Tribune fired. But by far the most eye-catching allegation is that Blagojevich "put a 'for sale' sign on the naming of a United States senator," Fitzgerald said.
Prosecutors allege that Blagojevich was quite flexible in what he could accept in return for the Senate seat, including a post in the administration, an ambassadorship, a leadership post in a pro-labor nonprofit, campaign funds, and a seat on a corporate board for his wife. In recorded conversations, Blagojevich appeared ready to appoint a candidate Obama wanted but was frustrated by the president-elect's team's unwillingness to play ball. In an apparent reference to Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama—none of the potential candidates are named— Blagojevich told an adviser he knew the president-elect wanted her as his successor but complained that "they're not willing to give me anything except appreciation. Fuck them."
If Blagojevich didn't receive an enticing enough offer from any of the potential candidates, he was apparently ready to appoint himself. "I've got this thing and it's fucking golden," Blagojevich told an adviser. "I'm just not giving it up for fuckin' nothing. I'm not gonna do it. And, and I can always use it. I can parachute me there." The NYT and WP both take front-page looks at how the people of Illinois and federal investigators, who have seen their fair share of corruption, were struggling to understand how the governor could have been so brazen in seeking personal gain from his office, even when he knew he was under investigation. "I almost fell over," a frequent critic of the governor tells the NYT. "I was speechless and sickened. In all of the millions of indictments I've read over the last years, I can't remember anything as vile as this."
Everyone seems to agree that the possibility that a senator might be picked through corrupt means is the main reason why prosecutors decided to act now after investigating the governor for more than five years. "We're talking about tainting the selection of a U.S. senator," which could have much more far-reaching repercussions than "a continuation of the let's-make-a-deal, where's-mine part of Illinois politics," a political science professor tells USAT.
Fitzgerald took pains to emphasize that the case "makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever." Obama also tried to distance himself yesterday. "I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so I was not aware of what was happening," Obama told reporters yesterday. In his first newspaper interview since the election, which the LAT fronts, the president-elect refused to elaborate on any conversations that members of his team had with the governor's office about the Senate appointment. Last month, David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama, said the president-elect had talked to the governor about the appointment, but he issued a statement yesterday saying he had misspoken.
Slate's John Dickerson notes that "[i]t's a little hard to believe that [Obama] didn't know anything that was happening relating to his old seat." There's evidence that Obama wanted Jarrett for the seat, but then all of a sudden "in the middle of the process, Obama stopped wanting that," writes Dickerson. "Why?"
As much as he tries to distance himself, it's clear the Blagojevich scandal will, at the very least, prove to be a distraction to Obama. Plus, as the LAT highlights, it also brings back memories of Obama's relationship with Antoin Rezko, since the governor's arrest was the result of the same investigation that led to the conviction of the real estate developer earlier this year.
The NYT points out that, in a way, Blagojevich, who will surely have the worst birthday of his life today, has Obama to thank for his fate. In a phone call three months ago, Obama urged the president of the Illinois Senate to urge passage of a state ethics bill that he was opposed to, as was Blagojevich. After the call, the Senate overrode Blagojevich's veto, which led the governor to pressure state contractors for campaign funds before the law took effect in 2009. Hearing word of these efforts is what pushed federal agents to obtain the wiretaps that recorded all the compromising conversations.
Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.