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?”
Not badly enough, evidently. Jarrett withdrew from consideration on November 8. Intelligent speculation might conclude that a savvy insider like Jarrett saw the overtures by Blagojevich for what they were: clumsy and extraordinarily dangerous attempts to buy a Senate seat. Rather than get caught up in the middle of a potential criminal probe, Jarrett gave Blagojevich a wide berth.
However, this also contradicts the transition team statement that Jarrett was unaware of any potential trade-off. If she did speak to SEIU’s Blanoff, it stands to reason she was fully aware of the price Obama would have to pay to get her in the Senate. That she didn’t reject the idea out of hand is significant.
The Obama camp sent another intermediary to discuss the Senate seat with Blagojevich — John Wyma, the governor’s friend and fund-raiser. Unbeknown to Blago (but perhaps known by the Obama camp), Wyma was cooperating with the office of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald:
This is significant because it shows that Wyma, a Blagojevich friend and lobbyist, had contact with both the Obama camp and the then-governor at the same time he had been cooperating with federal officials.
Wyma passed along a message from Rahm Emanuel:
“Rahm asked him to deliver the message — the president-elect would be very pleased if you appointed Valerie and he would be, uh, thankful and appreciative” for a Valerie Jarrett appointment.
“They’re not willing to give me anything but appreciation — f— them,” Blagojevich said.
It is not surprising that the transition report would be so sterile while asserting that everything was on the up and up. And we’ll never know if the president ever seriously entertained Blago’s offer to seat Jarrett in exchange for a cabinet post. But it is very clear from the Harris testimony and a closer listen to the wiretapped recordings that there was an intense back and forth between Obama’s people and the Blagojevich team about the Senate seat, despite the impression to the contrary in the transition report. It can also be inferred that Obama’s Chicago street smarts served him well when he pulled back from Blago’s wheeling and dealing, sensing trouble in the wind and basically telling the governor to appoint whomever he wanted.
Perhaps the most pathetic offer made by Blagojevich was his proffer to swap the Senate seat for Illinois Senate President Emil Jones’ campaign war chest:
In one mid-November, 2008, Rod Blagojevich sent his top aide, John Harris, to approach then-Illinois Senate President Emil Jones with a deal:
Blagojevich would appoint Jones if he considered turning over his campaign war chest to the governor.
“I told Jones that Emil Jones was the governor’s favorite candidate next to himself,” Harris said he told Jones.
“I did discuss with Sen. Jones than no one other than Emil had been a friend of the governor,” Harris said.
But that’s where the talk stopped, Harris said. He never broached the topic of money with Jones, he said.
“I believe the impression I gave the governor was that I talked about Emil’s war chest and big bucket of campaign money,” in relation to the Senate seat, Harris said.
Prosecutor Carrie Hamilton asked why Harris didn’t do as he was told.
“If the governor wanted to ask for the money, he would do himself,” Harris said he believed.
Not even a crook like Harris would debase himself and beg for money on behalf of his boss.
The corruption trial of Rod Blagojevich is hardly a morality tale. Wheeling and dealing in American politics both at the state and national level often walks the line between criminal and legal, horse trading and bribes. It has been that way since our founding and is not likely to change no matter who is in the majority or how many attempts are made at reform.
The tragedy of Blagojevich lies in his belief that he was doing nothing wrong — or, at least, that he was engaged in activity of which most politicians are guilty. And there is tragedy in the public’s cynical weariness in believing that Blagojevich is no different than other public servants in that they are all grasping, conniving, and greedy glad-handers who are only out for themselves and how much they can leech from the taxpayer during their term in office.
Most tragic of all is that this attitude on the part of the public allows for politicians like Blagojevich to be elected — and re-elected — because the majority of us turn away from engagement in the public life of our country, leaving the battlefield to shysters, hypocrites, and the mendacious hucksters who see politics as a golden path to riches and power, rather than service to the people.