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Corruption Charges Surround Ill. Gov. Blagojevich

December 9, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Officials arrested Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich Tuesday on allegations of soliciting bribes for President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat and other claims. Reporters detail the charges.

JIM LEHRER: Those stunning corruption charges against the governor of Illinois. Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: The two-term Democratic governor was the subject of an ongoing federal probe into influence-peddling in Illinois politics. Just yesterday, Gov. Blagojevich was asked about reports that he was under surveillance.

GOV. ROD BLAGOJEVICH (D), Illinois: If anybody wants to tape my conversations, go right ahead. Feel free to do it. But I’d appreciate it, if you want to tape my conversations, give me a heads-up and let me know.

RAY SUAREZ: The arrest was made before sunrise this morning at Blagojevich’s home on Chicago’s North Side.

The chief of the FBI’s Chicago office called to advise the governor that agents were at his front door. The governor reportedly answered, “Is this a joke?”

His chief of staff, John Harris, was also taken into custody. Both are charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and solicitation of bribes.

The investigation apparently heated up after the election of Barack Obama. The governor was tasked with appointing a replacement senator, an opportunity that Blagojevich allegedly saw as a potential profit center.

PATRICK FITZGERALD, U.S. Attorney: Gov. Blagojevich has taken us to a truly new low.

RAY SUAREZ: U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who sent Blagojevich’s predecessor, George Ryan, to prison, spoke at a Chicago news conference. He said Blagojevich’s home phone was tapped and his campaign office was bugged.

PATRICK FITZGERALD: The tapes revealed that Gov. Blagojevich wanted a number of things in exchange for making the appointment to the Senate seat: an appointment as secretary of health and human services or an ambassadorship; an appointment to a private foundation; a higher-paying job for his wife; or campaign contributions.

At one point, he proposed a three-way deal: that a cushy union job would be given to him at a higher rate of pay where he could make money. In exchange, he thought that the union might get benefits from the president-elect, and therefore the president-elect might get the candidate of his choice.

I should make clear that the complaint makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever, his conduct.

This part of the scheme lost steam when the person that the governor thought was the president-elect’s choice of senator took herself out of the running.

But after the deal never happened, this is the governor’s reaction: Quote, “They’re not willing to give me anything but appreciation. Bleep them,” close quote. And, again, the bleep is a redaction.

RAY SUAREZ: Fitzgerald said his office moved to cut off what he called a political corruption crime spree.

The criminal complaint also alleged that Blagojevich and Harris were trying to strong-arm the Tribune Company as part of an effort to influence its flagship paper’s editorial stance, which was highly critical of the governor.

Tribune, which filed for bankruptcy protection yesterday, owns the Chicago Cubs. The company is trying to sell the team and had approached the governor’s office for possible financial help.

PATRICK FITZGERALD: Gov. Blagojevich and defendant John Harris, his chief of staff, schemed to send a message to the Chicago Tribune that the Tribune Company wanted to sell its ball field, Wrigley Field, in order to complete a business venture. The price of doing so was to fire certain editors, including one editor by name.

In the governor’s words, quote, “Fire all those bleeping people. Get them the bleep out of there, and get us some editorial support,” close quote. And the bleeps were not really bleeps.

RAY SUAREZ: President-elect Obama spoke briefly with reporters this afternoon.

BARACK OBAMA, President-elect of the United States: I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so we were not — I was not aware of what was happening. And as I said, it’s a sad day for Illinois.

Blagojevich appointees retain power

Bernard Schoenburg
State Journal-Register
[T]he people who he put in charge of agencies and his budget people, I'm sure, are taking charge at the moment.

RAY SUAREZ: Blagojevich appeared before a federal district court this afternoon, was ordered to surrender his passport, and was released on bond.

For more on all this, I'm joined by Ben Calhoun, political reporter for Chicago Public Radio, and Bernard Schoenburg, political writer and columnist for the State Journal-Register in Springfield.

Ben Calhoun, since the early morning arrest, has the governor or his office had any response to the Fitzgerald charges or any comment on his appearance in court today?

BEN CALHOUN, Chicago Public Radio: The only thing that I've seen so far is a comment about the vital services of government continuing to function in light of what has happened.

Other than that, I am unaware of anything that has come directly from this governor's office about his continuing to function as chief executive of Illinois, which under the constitution he remains in office, despite the criminal complaint against him.

RAY SUAREZ: According to the law, Bernard Schoenburg, he remains in office, but who's running Illinois really right now? Is it still Gov. Blagojevich?

BERNARD SCHOENBURG, State Journal-Register: Well, the powers of the governor's office in Illinois, as in most states, I suppose, are quite awesome, so there is, you know, a big executive department.

His people would be running government. His agency directors would be running their agencies. His budget office has control of, you know, our budget, which is in some peril, some great amount of peril, actually.

But for the time being, the Blagojevich administration is still there. Our lieutenant governor probably does not have any control at this point. He's actually not very close to the governor. They hardly speak at all, and they didn't run together on the same ticket.

So the people who he put in charge of agencies and his budget people, I'm sure, are taking charge at the moment.

Blagojevich a skilled fundraiser

Bernard Schoenburg
State Journal-Register
[A]s a reformer, Rod Blagojevich got into the governor's office. Problems started almost immediately.

RAY SUAREZ: Bernard, for people in other parts of the country who haven't followed his career, tell us about the background of Rod Blagojevich. How did he come to the office?

BERNARD SCHOENBURG: Well, he is perhaps primarily the son-in-law of a Chicago alderman, Dick Mell, who remains in the Chicago City Council. And he was a young lawyer. He has joked about not doing very well in law school and surfing in Malibu, where he went to law school.

But he was a state representative. Then he went to Congress, getting the break when Dan Rostenkowski lost his seat. A Republican held it for two years, then Rod Blagojevich took over.

And then, when he was in Congress, he has a very good delivery on the stump. And he, in the year 2000, ran for governor, with his father-in-law's advice. And they later on had a falling out during his governorship.

But he raised a lot of money to scare other people in the field, convince people especially downstate that he was going to be of the people and for the people, as opposed to George Ryan, the corruption-plagued governor before who was a Republican, and the last in the line of Republicans that were there for 26 years.

So as a reformer, Rod Blagojevich got into the governor's office. Problems started almost immediately, but because he raised so much money and allegations continued to come out about him raising it through strong-arming contributors who were state contractors, he was able to mount a campaign against the Republican candidate for re-election in 2006, Judy Topinka, making her look as bad as him, in particular at one point showing her dancing the polka with George Ryan, who was, you know, by then the disgraced governor on the Republican side.

And Rod Blagojevich was able to get yet a second term. We're in the middle of that. And, obviously, things are not so secure for his future to finish this term.

RAY SUAREZ: Ben Calhoun, today the U.S. attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald, released not an indictment, but a complaint. Is there effectively any difference?

BEN CALHOUN: Well, the governor has been charged there. A complaint, I don't believe, has to be approved by a grand jury.

Now, the criminal complaint that was unsealed today to coincide with the governor's arrest is a two-count complaint and includes the governor and his chief of staff, John Harris.

So effectively he had to appear in court, just as with an indictment, before a judge this afternoon, which he did, making his initial appearance.

Investigation was long, involved

Ben Calhoun
Chicago Public Radio
[T]his investigation has been mounting for the last five years, you know, ratcheting up and up, closing in around Gov. Blagojevich.

RAY SUAREZ: Did the U.S. attorney comment on why he brought the complaint now, when described in the very voluminous document is an alleged pattern of corruption that goes back almost to the beginning of his time as governor?

BEN CALHOUN: He most certainly did. As you say, this investigation has been mounting for the last five years, you know, ratcheting up and up, closing in around Gov. Blagojevich. But today the question for me and my colleagues was, why pull the trigger now? Of all times, why pull the trigger right now?

And what he said was, you had a number of decisions that were on the verge of being made. You had the Senate appointment, which was on the verge of being made. Blagojevich has said he was going to make that decision by the end of the year.

There was also a piece of legislation which Patrick Fitzgerald mentioned, which is sitting on the governor's desk awaiting approval. And what's alleged in the complaint is that the governor was trying to leverage that for a large campaign contribution.

There was also, you know, as mentioned in the preceding report, the sale of Wrigley Field pending by the Tribune Company and that being leveraged by the governor, as alleged in the complaint.

So it was this collection of things that Patrick Fitzgerald said led him to believe that they should bring this now, otherwise these criminal enterprises, the alleged criminal enterprises could progress.

RAY SUAREZ: Ben, the complaint includes extensive quotes that, it says, comes from the wiretapping of Gov. Blagojevich. Does he sound in this document like a man who thinks the feds are on his trail?

BEN CALHOUN: It's actually really unbelievable. At one point, prosecutors quote him as saying to an aide, in one of these alleged schemes, "Pretend that the whole world is listening. Don't frame these things when you have these conversations. You know, be careful. Act like the whole world is listening."

Well, it turned out that people were listening. They were federal investigators. And they have him on tape.

They also, just to -- the overall tone of the quotes you get from the governor in this criminal complaint, there's one that just really sticks with me. And he says, about the Senate appointment, he says, "I have this thing, and it's expletive valuable. I'm not just going to give it away for expletive nothing."

And that's really the tone of the quotes that we see from these wiretaps.

Others may be implicated

Ben Calhoun
Chicago Public Radio
[T]here's also allegations that some people, some of these candidates ... were willing to engage with this scheme of supposedly selling this Senate appointment.

RAY SUAREZ: Should anybody else fear any legal jeopardy from what's contained in the complaint? There are a lot of other people, none of whom are named as being parties to some of these conversations.

BEN CALHOUN: We have some fairly elaborate allegations, and particularly what comes to mind for me when you say that is the field of potential Senate replacements.

There are some people who are said to have refused to engage. And the governor said they're not going to give us anything, so we're not going to talk to them. That's alleged in the complaint.

But there's also allegations that some people, some of these candidates had, you know, proxies approach the governor on, quote, "a pay-to-play basis," that they were willing to engage with this scheme of supposedly selling this Senate appointment.

So, as this legal process moves forward, the task for me and all of my colleagues today was taking the labels that were applied to people in this criminal complaint and trying to put given circumstances described in there names to labels and see who is who.

RAY SUAREZ: Very quickly, before we go, Bernard Schoenburg, at this hour, it's said that the Senate president of Illinois is planning to do an end-around on the governor's authority to make that Senate appointment?

BERNARD SCHOENBURG: Well, Emil Jones, who was actually one of the people considered a possibility for the Senate, has said he'll call the Senate into session, I think going along with what Senator Durbin said, U.S. Senator Durbin, to talk about having a special election to name our next U.S. senator to replace Barack Obama.

Interestingly, Emil Jones has been one of Rod Blagojevich's closest allies in Illinois. He is retiring from the Senate now. He'll be out as of January. He named his son to take his place in the Senate or had people name his son.

But I don't think, given the allegations, he, too, I believe, Emil Jones, was shocked at what we see, so the process may be for the legislature to try to change Illinois law so it's not the governor's sole responsibility to name the next U.S. senator.

The problem may be, if Rod Blagojevich is still governor, if legislation changes it, he could sit on that for, like, 60 days. We could be a long way off before he vetoes it, even if they're going to override.

So that may push along the idea of impeachment, which many people have sought over Gov. Blagojevich for some period of time. But that will probably build to a crescendo now, as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Bernard Schoenburg and Ben Calhoun, gentlemen, thank you both.

BEN CALHOUN: My pleasure.