Illinois Governor Arrested for Trying to Sell Obama Senate Seat

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, have been arrested and charged with a multitude of crimes involving everything from a “pay-to-play” scheme for state contracts to his attempt to sell the open Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama in exchange for “financial considerations” for the governor and his wife.


Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald calls the breadth and depth of charges “staggering.” Here’s a sampling:

On the issue of the U.S. Senate selection, federal prosecutors alleged Blagojevich sought appointment as secretary of Health and Human Services in the new Obama administration, or a lucrative job with a union in exchange for appointing a union-preferred candidate.

Blagojevich and Harris conspired to demand the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial board members responsible for editorials critical of Blagojevich in exchange for state help with the sale of Wrigley Field, the Chicago Cubs baseball stadium owned by Tribune Co.

Blagojevich and Harris, along with others, obtained and sought to gain financial benefits for the governor, members of his family, and his campaign fund in exchange for appointments to state boards and commissions, state jobs, and state contracts.

“The breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering,” U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said in a statement.

“They allege that 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.”

In any other state, this would be simply unbelievable, or perhaps considered a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence to have such breathtaking and brazen corruption reveal itself at the highest levels of state government.


But all of this occurred in the state of Illinois, where the arrest of Blagojevich makes it four governors in recent history * who have been arrested and charged with wrongdoing while in office.

And that doesn’t include the steady stream of state officials, lawmakers, Chicago alderman, and others doing business with the state who are frog-marched into the federal building downtown and locked up for taking advantage of their office to personally enrich themselves and/or their cronies.

The potential sale of Obama’s senate seat in return for a Blagojevich appointment to the cabinet or a cushy union job is interesting to note if only to wonder whom he made the offer to. Someone on the Obama transition team perhaps, but more likely someone with extensive union ties who could bring pressure to bear on the Obama people.

The “pay-to-play” charges have been out in the public for more than two years. This was a scheme where Blagojevich friend and campaign financier Antoin “Tony” Rezko pressured companies doing business with the state to contribute to the Blagojevich re-election campaign in exchange for lucrative state contracts. Rezko was convicted of 18 counts of fraud in connection with the scheme and the governor’s name was prominently mentioned during his trial.

Rezko, also a close associate, patron, and financier of Barack Obama, began to talk with prosecutors just prior to the election in October, where it was widely believed he implicated the governor in several different illegalities.


But there are several new charges in addition to the attempt to sell Obama’s Senate seat. The assistance Blagojevich was willing to give the Tribune company in selling the Chicago Cubs baseball team —  and the equally valuable real estate where their home of Wrigley Field is located — in exchange for firing Chicago Tribune editorial board members is surreal. Whom did he approach with that scheme? And did he actually believe he could influence someone to fire editorial board members in this day and age? In America?

I believe these later allegations against the governor — including the charge that “Blagojevich also was alleged to be using a favors list, made up largely of individuals and firms that have state contracts or received taxpayer benefits, from which to conduct a $2.5 million fundraising drive before year’s end — reveal a man either so corrupt that he saw little downside to his actions or, sadly and perhaps more likely, that the years of investigations had taken a toll on his mental well-being and he had lost touch with reality. With federal investigators swarming about him and his cronies, he came up with the idea to sell Obama’s Senate seat? And the scheme to exchange favors with campaign contributors? And to seek a cabinet posting — with federal investigators ready to indict him? How could he have possibly thought he could get away with all of it?


These are not the actions of someone who had a grasp of the enormous legal trouble he was in. The fact that he was so reckless and cavalier about his wrongdoing may indicate either a soul so corrupt that right and wrong had no meaning for him or he was suffering from delusions associated with his office so that he may have thought he was untouchable.

The brief runs 76 pages and can be viewed here (PDF required).

* Correction: The original article made the claim that the arrest of Governor Blagojevich makes him the fourth Illinois governor out of the last seven who had been indicted. In fact, Blagojevich is the fourth elected governor out of the last seven since 1960.


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