At a press conference yesterday naming his energy and environmental team, President-elect Barack Obama sought to clean up some toxic waste swirling around the ankles of his own transition team by attempting to put to rest a controversy that has nipped at his heels this Christmas season. Namely, did he or any of his aides become involved in Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s “pay-to-play” scheme involving Obama’s successor in the Senate?
At another press conference last Friday, the president-elect promised to conduct a review of all staff contact with the governor’s people. At the time, Obama stated flatly that he had not had any contact at all with Blagojevich about the seat and that his staff had made no deals with the governor:
What I want to do is to gather all the facts about any staff contacts that I might — may have — that may have taken place between the transition office and the governor’s office. And we’ll have those in the next few days, and we’ll present them.
But what I’m absolutely certain about is that our office had no involvement in any deal-making around my Senate seat. That I’m absolutely certain of.
Also yesterday, the Obama transition team released a statement on the promised review of staff contacts with the governor’s office. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the statement noted that the review cleared the transition team of any “inappropriate discussions” with Blagojevich and his people:
At the direction of the president-elect, a review of transition staff contacts with Governor Blagojevich and his office has been conducted and completed and is ready for release. That review affirmed the public statements of the president-elect that he had no contact with the governor or his staff, and that the president-elect’s staff was not involved in inappropriate discussions with the governor or his staff over the selection of his successor as U.S. senator.
Well, that’s a relief. Glad to hear it, although I would perhaps want to see that report before making a final determination. After all, just what would the Obama team consider “inappropriate discussions”? Do they mean illegal?
So where’s the report?
“In the course of those discussions, the U.S. attorney’s office requested the public release of the transition review be deferred until the week of December 22, in order not to impede their investigation of the governor. The transition has agreed to this revised timetable for release,” said Obama transition communications director Dan Pfeiffer.
I know what you’re thinking. The release of the written report, timed to just about coincide with Santa’s descent down his first chimney this year, will get lost in all the Christmas celebrating and no one will pay attention to it. You are correct, but what’s a transition team in trouble to do? And if you’re a federal prosecutor who is vulnerable to losing your job if you displease the new boss and you are asked to make a request that the written report on Obama staff contacts with Blago’s office be delayed a few days, what’s the big deal?
That’s pretty fortunate for the Obama team that Fitzy asked them to delay issuing the report. But we already know that at least two top advisors (Advisors “A” and “B” in the taped transcripts released in the criminal complaint against Blagojevich) had discussions with Blagojevich and his people about the Senate seat. The question isn’t whether there were “inappropriate discussions,” but what exactly was discussed between the parties.
The taped transcripts of phone calls on November 7 offer a clue or two about the issues under discussion between the two camps.
On that date, Blagojevich spoke with “Advisor A” about the seat and told him in a phone conversation that he would appoint “Senate Candidate 1 [widely believed to be Obama’s first choice, his longtime friend and confidante Valerie Jarrett] in exchange for the position of secretary of Health and Human Services
in the president-elect’s cabinet.”
Speculation about who “Advisor A” might be has centered on Obama’s chief of staff-designate Rahm Emanuel. The press would love to ask Rahmbo if this is the case but, alas, he has made himself invisible and refuses to come out of his house to play with the media.
But the question must be asked: is this an “inappropriate discussion”? Absolutely not. Horse-trading for a Senate seat might seem like run-of-the-mill, grubby politics — but it is not unexpected. One could hardly expect “Advisor A” to go running to a federal prosecutor based on this conversation. He would have been laughed out of Fitzy’s office.
But that wasn’t the only telephone conversation that took place on November 7 between Blagojevich and Obama representatives. Later that day, a three-way conversation was taped involving the governor, his chief of staff John Harris (also arrested), and an Obama representative identified only as “Advisor B” who, we are told, is a Washington-based consultant. Is “Advisor B” a member of the official transition team? Judging by this eye-opening conversation taped by the feds and the fact that the review cleared Obama’s “staff” of any deal-making with Blago, we very well might hazard a guess and say that Advisor B was not an official Obama staffer but could very well have been acting as a conduit between Governor Blagojevich and the Obama camp.
The three-way phone conversation involved Blago, Harris, and “Advisor B” and it got down to the nitty gritty of what Blago wanted in return for naming Valerie Jarrett to the Senate seat:
Rod Blagojevich stated that he needs to consider his family and that he is “financially” hurting. Harris said that they are considering what will help the “financial security” of the Blagojevich family and what will keep Rod Blagojevich “politically viable.” Rod Blagojevich stated, “I want to make money.” During the call, Rod Blagojevich, Harris, and Advisor B discussed the prospect of working a three-way deal for the open Senate seat. Harris noted that Rod Blagojevich is interested in taking a high-paying position with an organization called “Change to Win,” which is connected to Service Employees International Union (“SEIU”). Harris suggested that SEIU Official make Rod Blagojevich the head of Change to Win and, in exchange, the president-elect could help Change to Win with its legislative agenda on a national level.
Still nothing illegal but is this an “inappropriate discussion”? Advisor B would have to be pretty dense not to see that Blago wanted to sell the seat in exchange for a well-paying, cushy job at a union non-governmental organization. But let’s give Mr. B the benefit of the doubt and call what was happening some hard-edged political horse-trading. It is what transpired next during this same call where a clear “pay-to-play” offer is made by the governor:
Harris suggested a “three-way deal,” and explained that a three-way deal like the one discussed would give the president-elect a “buffer so there is no obvious quid pro quo for [Senate Candidate 1].” Rod Blagojevich stated that for him to give up the governorship for the Change to Win position, the Change to Win position must pay a lot more than he is getting paid right now. Advisor B said that he liked the idea of the three-way deal. Rod Blagojevich stated that he is interested in making $250,000 to $300,000 and being on some organization boards. Advisor B said they should leverage the president-elect’s desire to have Senate Candidate 1 appointed to the Senate seat in order to get a head position with Change to Win and a salary. Advisor B agreed that the three-way deal would be a better plan than Rod Blagojevich appointing Senate Candidate 2 to the Senate seat and getting more done as governor.
The point — and what has Blagojevich in trouble — is that he was offering the seat not in exchange for the position with Change to Win itself, but in return for the salary that the job brought. It’s a fine line and legal experts can’t agree on whether it is illegal. But I don’t see how any fair person can say that this was not an “inappropriate discussion.” This is true especially in light of a phone conversation on November 10 that involved several “Washington, D.C.-based advisors, including Advisor B” where more suggestions were made by Blagojevich for lucrative positions that the president-elect could presumably get for him in exchange for naming Valerie Jarrett to the Senate. If it wasn’t clear by now that Blagojevich was acting inappropriately, Advisor B is a dunce.
But what of Advisor A? Two additional conversations between Blagojevich and that individual — one also on November 10 and another on November 11 — make it clear that the conversations bordered on exchanging the Senate seat for jobs where money was the primary goal of Blagojevich. It was also on November 10 that Blago went off on his tirade against Obama, saying, “he will appoint [Valerie Jarrett] … but if they feel like they can do this and not f***ing give me anything … then I’ll f***ing go [Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.].” (Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. is publicly reported to be interested in the open Senate seat). Blago stated that if his wife could get on some corporate boards and “picks up another 150 grand a year or whatever” it would help Blago get through the next several years as governor.
Blago’s threat to appoint Jackson unless financial emoluments are included would hit Obama particularly hard since the president-elect has no use for Jackson the Younger. It is at this point that we might wonder if Advisor A is indeed on the Obama transition team, how can this conversation not be considered “inappropriate”? At the very least, one of the big questions asked of Obama and his staff, even if they did nothing illegal in hearing out Blago’s “pay-to-play” scheme for the Senate, is why didn’t anyone report this blatant attempt of the governor to enrich himself in exchange for appointing Obama’s favored candidate to the authorities?
This is the true exposure to criticism of the Obama camp, not that they did anything illegal — although Advisor B may be in for some rough questioning from Fitzgerald. The transcripts are clear that a criminal conspiracy was underway to sell the Senate seat and Obama’s people — staff or not — were right in the middle of it.
Might that written report being released when everyone in the country has their gaze elsewhere shed any light on who might have been bargaining with the governor? And why does the president-elect’s number one staffer continue to avoid answering questions about his conversations with Blagojevich?
For clues, I suggest we keep an eye on Santa Claus, who, as we all know, has been in the process of determining who has been naughty and who has been nice. Judging by what’s on those transcripts, some people in Obama’s camp are likely to be very disappointed in Christmas this year.
Jim Lindgren, whose excellent timeline on the scandal is must reading for those who wish to understand the sequence of events that eventually trapped the Illinois governor, corrects two egregious errors made in this article.
Both Advisor “A” and “B” are not Obama advisors but rather advisors to Blagojevich. The proof lies in this posting of Jim’s at Volohk Conspiracy. I will not make any excuses. The information I based those observations on was obviously erroneous and I should have been more careful. Ultimately, responsibility for the errors is mine and mine alone.
I regret the errors and any confusion that resulted from them.