Blagojevich scandal threatens to be a distraction for Obama’s transition team

By Marisa Taylor and Steven Thomma

McClatchy Newspapers


PHOTO: Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON – President-elect Barack Obama was untainted but not untouched Tuesday by the stunning scandal surrounding charges that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to sell Obama’s vacant Senate seat in exchange for cash or a lucrative job in the future Obama administration.

The charges against Blagojevich suggested that Obama rebuffed the governor, punctuated by Blagojevich’s string of curse words to describe Obama. Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, said his office was not alleging that Obama was involved in the scheme, or even aware of it.

However, the scandal, which Fitzgerald described as a “political corruption crime spree,” threatened to be a distraction as the Obama team assembles a new administration. Some Chicagoans planning to move to Washington with Obama could find themselves facing continuing questions about what they knew about Blagojevich’s alleged attempted shakedown.

Obama’s friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett, for example, is not implicated but likely will face questions about how and why she withdrew her name from consideration for the Senate seat. The charges allege that Blagojevich wanted a payoff from Obama or his allies to name her to the seat. She’s now slated to be a top White House counsellor to Obama.

In a short statement Tuesday afternoon, Obama said he was “saddened and sobered” by the allegations, but added he had “no contact with the governor or his office. And so I was not aware of what was happening.” The governor has the sole power to appoint Obama’s replacement.

Earlier statements by incoming Obama senior adviser David Axelrod appear to contradict at least part of Obama’s assertion. In an interview with Fox News in November, Axelrod said the president-elect had talked to Blagojevich about the Senate appointment, although he didn’t think Obama would act as “kingmaker.”

In a statement Tuesday evening, Axelrod now said he was “mistaken” and that Obama and the governor “did not then or at any time discuss the subject.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Robert M. “Mike” Duncan called Obama’s comments on the matter “insufficient at best.”

“Given the president-elect’s history of supporting and advising Governor Blagojevich, he has a responsibility to speak out and fully address the issue,” Duncan said.

Blagojevich, who was released without bail after a brief court appearance Tuesday, was aware he was already under federal investigation for other pay-to-play allegations even as he speculated how he could gain favours or money from the Senate seat appointment, a 76-page criminal affidavit said. The FBI began tapping his campaign office and home phone in October.

According to the affidavit, Blagojevich, who turns 52 on Wednesday, hoped the Obama administration would appoint him secretary of health and human services or as an ambassador if he picked who he believed to be Obama’s favoured candidate for the seat, but acknowledged it was unlikely “because of all the negative publicity” surrounding him. He also speculated that Obama might get his wife, Patricia, on paid corporate boards.

Blagojevich said he tried to cut a deal with a person identified in the affidavit as Senate Candidate 5, whose associate he claimed had promised to “pay to play” or raise between $500,000 and $1 million in campaign contributions in exchange for the appointment, the affidavit said. On Dec. 4, the governor said he had spoken to that fundraiser and decided he was “elevating” that candidate on the list.

He allegedly warned the fundraiser “you gotta be careful … and assume everybody’s listening, the whole world is listening.”

If his scheme failed, he is heard talking about appointing himself to avoid impeachment by the Illinois legislature, the affidavit said.

His chief of staff, John Harris, suggests that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) act as a go-between with Obama. The governor later met with an SEIU official, the affidavit said. Harris also was arrested Tuesday.

In a statement Tuesday, SEIU spokeswoman Ramona Oliver said the organization had “no reason to believe that SEIU or any SEIU official was involved in any wrongdoing.”

Blagojevich also allegedly plotted to set up and head a nonprofit that would be the vehicle for Obama’s political allies, including billionaire Warren Buffett, to illegally pump millions of dollars to pay him if he was indicted and had to leave office, the affidavit said. There is no indication in the affidavit that Buffett was involved in any way.

In one passage, Blagojevich allegedly says he knew Obama wanted an unnamed “Senate Candidate 1” for the seat but that “they’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation. (Expletive) them.”

At another point, Blagojevich uses an obscenity to describe the president-elect after being told by his advisers he has to “suck it up” for two years and pick Obama’s favoured candidate “for nothing.”

Senate Candidate 1, who’s not identified by prosecutors, is presumably Jarrett. She’s the only Obama adviser who was being considered for the seat and the only one who took her name out of the running on Nov. 12, as the indictment says that candidate did. Jarrett didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.

Fitzgerald, who is known as a hard-charging apolitical prosecutor, said he felt it was important to make arrests quickly because of the timing of the Senate appointment. He signaled the investigation was still ongoing.

The affidavit includes a litany of alleged corrupt schemes by Blagojevich, including his attempts to force the Tribune Co., the owner of the Chicago Tribune, to oust members of the paper’s editorial board who were critical of him in exchange for giving the company $100 million in state assistance for its sale of Wrigley Field.

Tribune Co. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Monday.

Fitzgerald said Blagojevich was racing to beat a change in state ethics laws that would bar certain contributions beginning Jan. 1.

“Blagojevich and others were working feverishly to get as much money from contractors, shaking them down, pay to play, before the end of the year,” he said.

The governor’s office issued a statement that did not address the allegations, except to emphasize that the case did “nothing to impact the services, duties or function of the State.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called the charges “appalling” and representing as “serious a breach of the public trust as I have ever heard.”

“It is clear that anyone Governor Blagojevich appoints to the Senate will fairly or unfairly be tainted by questions of impropriety,” Reid said.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, said the Illinois General Assembly should enact a law calling for a special election.

The arrest marks the second time that a figure tied to Obama has been accused of federal corruption. Antoin Rezko, a longtime Obama fundraiser, was convicted in June of 16 felony corruption charges by Fitzgerald’s office. Rezko also raised money for Blagojevich.

While Obama was not implicated during Rezko’s trial, Blagojevich was. In Tuesday’s complaint, Rezko was identified as a go-between for Blagojevich who talked to campaign contributors about state jobs and lucrative appointments.

The relationship between Blagojevich and Obama was largely political, an apparently casual link as fellow Democrats in Illinois.

Obama elbowed Blagojevich aside by running for president, something Blagojevich wanted to do himself. In the indictment, the governor was said to still be harboring hopes of running in 2016.

(McClatchy Newspapers correspondents David Lightman and Margaret Talev contributed to this report.)

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