What do you get when you mix one preening, narcissistic, disgraced ex-governor; two histrionic and bombastic defense attorneys; three steely-eyed, experienced prosecutors; and a jury made up of 12 men and women, good and true citizens all?
Just another corruption trial in Chicago.
In truth, the trial of Rod Blagojevich, the impeached governor of Illinois, on 16 counts of corruption including racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud, extortion conspiracy, attempted extortion, and making false statements to federal agents is a little bit more than “just another corruption trial” — except for the the sad fact that we have heard it all before, and more than once. At least 79 Illinois public officials have been convicted of wrongdoing since 1972, including three governors, two other state officials, 15 state legislators, two congressmen, one mayor, three other city officials, 27 aldermen, 19 Cook County judges, and seven other Cook County officials.
The unifying factor in the overwhelming majority of these cases was petty, personal monetary aggrandizement. Payoffs to judges for lenient sentences or even acquittals, kickbacks to aldermen, illegal campaign contributions, cash in shoeboxes, “pay to play” payoffs, contracts to cronies — the endless, ridiculous, maddening, depressing litany of abuses Illinois taxpayers have had to endure has made the state a laughingstock, so much so that an entire sub-genre of one-liners about Illinois politics and politicians has grown up around the sleaze. Most citizens of this state figure if they can’t do anything about the corruption, at least they can laugh about it.
At the federal courthouse in Chicago, however, it is deadly serious business. Prosecutors allege that Blagojevich tried to trade the Senate seat vacated by the election of Barack Obama to the presidency for personal gain, including cash inducements and employment considerations. Rather than comical, the testimony so far reveals a politician more pathetic than amusing.
Already under investigation for corruption in late 2008, Blagojevich was desperately casting about for cash (or a job that would pay him a large salary) to finance his re-election, pay for top-flight lawyers to defend him, and feed his insatiable need for status and acceptance. He saw his powers of senatorial appointment as a ticket to paradise — a once-in-a-politician’s-lifetime opportunity to grab the brass ring and either enrich himself or place himself in the center of power in Washington.
He thought he had Barack Obama over a barrel. He didn’t. The president may have devoutly wished for his close friend Valerie Jarrett to take his place in the Senate, but he wasn’t willing to pay Blago’s price of a cabinet seat. Blagojevich believed he could manipulate Rahm Emanuel into getting some rich men to throw a fundraiser for his re-election. Once again, he was mistaken.
What is perhaps most interesting about Blagojevich’s machinations is the level of contact he and his aides initiated with the Obama White House. You may recall that the White House cleared itself of any wrongdoing in the matter when the transition team carried out its own internal investigation. Since the country was ga-ga over Obama at the time, no one seemed to think it unusual that the Obama team, in effect, declared themselves innocent — especially since no one had really accused them of being guilty. This report compiled by White House attorney Greg Craig has been the final word on the involvement in this matter of Obama and top aides Emanuel, Axelrod, Jarrett, and others.
But at the trial, John Harris, Blagojevich’s former chief of staff who made a deal with the prosecutor in exchange for his testimony, offers some impressions that directly contradict that report and call into question whether or not there were third-party negotiations to put Jarrett in the Senate.
Harris testified that it was his impression that then-President-elect Obama knew that his boss wanted a cabinet posting in exchange for seating Jarrett:
“(Blagojevich) feels very confident that the president understands that the governor would be willing to make the appointment of Valerie Jarrett as long as he gets what he’s asked for,” Harris, Blagojevich’s former chief of staff, testified, as he explained the recording, continuing: “The governor gets the cabinet appointment he’s asked for.”
Obama’s internal report about his staff’s contacts with Blagojevich at the time indicates that Balanoff relayed to Jarrett that Blagojevich was interested in a Health and Human Services cabinet post. The report says Jarrett did not in her mind link the cabinet post request to her appointment to the Senate seat.
Jarrett, a longtime player in the rough and tumble of Chicago politics, didn’t link the cabinet post for Blagojevich with her Senate appointment? If you believe that, there’s a drawbridge over the Chicago River I can sell you — cheap. The trade-off was discussed by third parties, including Blagojevich mouthpiece Doug Scofield representing the governor and SEIU union leader and Andy Stern confidante Tom Balanoff representing the Obama camp. Scofield reported to Blagojevich that Obama was not interested in the swap. The governor related that conversation to Harris: “[Obama] [d]idn’t know quite what to make of my request. Barack really wants to get away from Illinois politics,” Blagojevich said.
The transition team report has this definitive statement about what the president-elect knew about Blago’s wheeling and dealing:
At no time in the discussion of the Senate seat or of possible replacements did the president-elect hear of a suggestion that the governor expected a personal benefit in return for making this appointment to the Senate.
That’s simply not true and the testimony at the trial contradicts it. And although there was nothing concrete in the transition team’s statement, one gets the sense listening to Harris that there was a lot more of an intense interest in who would replace Obama than the White House appeared to let on in that report.
This is borne out by the possibility that Jarrett met with Blanoff to discuss how to effect the trade-off:
Blagojevich said it’s become clear to him that Balanoff and Jarrett had met personally to discuss the matter.
“So she knows now she can be a senator if I get [the] Health and Human Services presidential appointment,” Blagojevich says on the recording. “So how bad does she want to be a U.S. senator?”