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Illinois Governor taken into Federal Custody

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Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his chief of staff were arrested in Chicago Tuesday on two counts each of corruption charges relating to trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat.


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald described the corruption charges against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich as "appalling," saying his "cynical behavior" reached "a truly new low."

"He has been arrested in the middle of what we can only describe as a political corruption crime spree," Fitzgerald said at a news conference in Chicago on Tuesday -- just hours after the Illinois governor and his chief of staff John Harris were arrested on two counts each of federal corruption charges stemming from allegations Blagojevich was trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder.

Fitzgerald said Blagojevich engaged in "pay-to-play politics" in an attempt to sell Obama's Senate seat. He said Blagojevich was recorded during court-authorized wiretaps as saying, "It's a bleeping valuable thing. You just don't give it away for nothing."

The arrest is part of a three-year probe in the governor's administration, Fitzgerald said. The criminal complaint by the FBI says each man was arrested on two charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and solicitation of bribery.

The charges also relate to allegations that Blagojevich and Harris schemed with previously convicted defendants and Obama associates Antonin Rezko, Stuart Levine, Ali Ata and others to arrange financial benefits in exchange for appointments to state boards and commissions, state employment, state contracts and access to state funds.

Fitzgerald also said, "'We make no allegations" that Obama was aware of any alleged scheming by Blagojevich.

In addition, the charges allege that Blagojevich tried to influence the composition of The Chicago Tribune editorial board in exchange for state aid to the Tribune Company, which owns the newspaper.

Fitzgerald said Blagojevich was recorded in wiretaps as saying, "Fire all those bleeping people, get them the bleep out of there and get us some support."

The prosecutor also cited another instance in which Blagojevich allegedly said he wanted to pull back 8 million dollars in funding from the Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago because he did not receive a 50,000 dollar personal contribution he had wanted from the hospital.

Blagojevich and Harris will have their initial court appearance at 1:30 p.m. before U.S. Magistrate Judge Nan Nolan in the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago.

In an earlier statement, Fitzgerald and FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Robert Grant said Blagojevich and Harris "allegedly conspired to sell U.S. Senate appointment, engaged in pay-to-play schemes and threatened to withhold state assistance to Tribune Company for Wrigley Field to induce (the) purge of newspaper editorial writers."

"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," he added.

Grant noted that Blagojevich was elected in 2002 after Illinois Gov. George Ryan retired in the face of looming federal corruption charges. Ryan was convicted and sentenced in 2006 to six and a half years in prison.

"Many, including myself, thought that the recent conviction of a former governor would usher in a new era of honesty and reform in Illinois politics. Clearly, the charges announced today reveal that the office of the Governor has become nothing more than a vehicle for self-enrichment, unrestricted by party affiliation and taking Illinois politics to a new low," Grant said.

Federal authorities were permitted by a judge to record the governor secretly before the November election after raising concerns that a replacement for Obama would be tainted.

Fitzgerald also said the 76-page FBI affidavit alleges that Blagojevich was taped conspiring to sell or trade Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat for financial and other personal benefits for himself and his wife, including an annual salary of $250,000-$300,000 at a nonprofit foundation or an organization affiliated with labor unions.

They also allege Blagojevich is heard on tape demanding a corporate board seat for his wife worth as much as $150,000 a year; promises of campaign funds, including cash up front; and the post of secretary of health and human services or an ambassadorship for himself in the Obama administration.

Informed Monday of the wiretap, Blagojevich told reporters that his discussions were "always lawful" and said taping him was akin to Watergate and President Nixon.

"I should say if anybody wants to tape my conversations, go right ahead, feel free to do it," he said.

Grant told reporters during the news conference that when he called to inform Blagojevich he was under arrest Tuesday morning, the Illinois governor was "very cooperative.

The Chicago Tribune was first to report the arrests. The Tribune was named in the affidavit because tapes allegedly recorded Blagojevich directing Harris to inform the newspaper's owners and advisers that "state financial assistance would be withheld unless members of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board were fired, primarily because Blagojevich viewed them as driving discussion of his possible impeachment."

The Tribune Company, which declared bankruptcy on Monday, owns The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Cubs, and had explored the possibility of obtaining assistance from the Illinois Finance Authority as part of the effort to sell the Cubs and finance the sale of Wrigley Field.

Conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Solicitation of bribery carries a maximum of 10 years in prison. Both carry a maximum fine of $250,000.

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Scandal Fraught With Political Risk For Obama

As calls for Gov. Rod Blagojevich's resignation mount, media reports and analyses are pointing to possible signs of political danger for President-elect Barack Obama. Under the headline "Obama Team Faces An Early Test Of Its Ability To Weather A Storm," for example, the New York Times reports that "exactly what role" Obama "or his team played will be a focus of intense scrutiny in the weeks to come," and "in that sense, the furor could be the first test of the Obama team's ability to manage a growing scandal." While Obama "said Tuesday that he had never spoken with the governor about the seat," his team "has declined for two days to answer questions about what discussions they had about the seat and whether intermediaries had any contacts with Mr. Blagojevich's advisers." The AP, meanwhile, notes Obama "wouldn't answer a question on whether he was aware of any conversations between the governor and his top aides, including incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel." Moreover, "aides didn't say whether Emanuel, a Democratic Illinois congressman, was ever approached by the governor's emissaries involved in allegedly corrupt schemes. Nor did they say whether Obama is investigating his own ranks to determine whether any of his staffers had contact with the governor or his office."

Bloomberg News refers to "collateral damage and a taint on Obama's transition to power," while in a piece titled "Big Risks For Obama In Blago Scandal," The Politico calls the scandal "a stink bomb tossed at close range" for the Obama camp." The Politico also poses "7 Blago Questions For Obama" this morning. They are: "1 'Did you communicate directly or indirectly with Blagojevich about picking your replacement in the US Senate?' ... 2 'Why didn't you or someone on your team correct your close adviser David Axelrod when he said you had spoken to Blagojevich about picking your replacement?' ... 3. 'When did you learn the investigation involved Blagojevich's alleged efforts to 'sell' your Senate seat, or of the governor's impending arrest?' ... 4 'Did you or anyone close to you contact the FBI or US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald about Blagojevich's alleged efforts to sell your Senate seat to the highest bidder?' ... 5 'Did federal investigators interview you or anyone close to you in the investigation?' ... 6 'When did you and Blagojevich last speak and about what?' ... 7 'Do you regret supporting Blagojevich?'" USA Today quotes Emory University political scientist Merle Black saying that "questions about the Blagojevich case will be a 'huge distraction'" for Obama's team, "and they need to address" the scandal "as soon as possible.'" The Washington Post, AFP and Chicago Tribune run additional stories in the ongoing scandal.

Source: There Were "Probably" Calls Between Blagojevich, Obama Camp The New York Times reports this morning, "A Democrat familiar with Illinois politics and the Obama transition, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there probably were calls between the Blagojevich and Obama camps about the Senate seat. It was not clear if any calls were recorded by federal agents, who had tapped the governor's phones."


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