Illinois Governor in Corruption Scandal
CHICAGO — Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois was arrested by federal authorities on Tuesday morning on corruption charges, including an allegation that he conspired to effectively sell President-elect Barack Obama’s seat in the United States Senate to the highest bidder.
The Recent Road of Illinois Political Corruption
Mr. Blagojevich, a Democrat, called his sole authority to name Mr. Obama’s successor “golden,” and he sought to parlay it into a job as an ambassador or secretary of health and human services, or a high-paying position at a nonprofit or an organization connected to labor unions, prosecutors said in a 76-page affidavit by the United States Attorney’s office in the Northern District of Illinois.
He also suggested, the affidavit said, that in exchange for the Senate appointment, his wife could be placed on corporate boards where she might earn as much as $150,000 a year, and he tried to gain promises of money for his campaign fund.
If Mr. Blagojevich could not secure a deal to his liking, prosecutors said, he was willing to appoint himself.
“If I don’t get what I want and I’m not satisfied with it, then I’ll just take the Senate seat myself,” the governor said in recorded conversation, prosecutors said.
Federal authorities recorded Mr. Blagojevich speaking with advisers, fundraisers, a spokesman and a deputy governor, using listening devices placed in his office, home telephone, and a conference room at the offices of a friend, the affidavit said. In its detail, it paints a vivid picture of influence peddling and bare-knuckle politics inside the Blagojevich administration, evoking the heyday of Chicago’s political machine.
At an appearance to address climate change, Mr. Obama said he had not had any contact with Mr. Blagojevich (pronounced bluh-GOY-uh-vich) or his office, and did not know about any machinations involving the Senate seat. He said it was a “sad day” for Illinois, but declined to comment further.
The charges against Mr. Blagojevich are part of a five-year investigation into public corruption and allegations of “pay to play” deals in the clubby world of Illinois politics. In addition to the charges related to Mr. Obama’s Senate seat, they include accusations that the governor worked to gain benefits for himself, his family and his campaign fund in exchange for appointments to state boards and commissions.
For example, according to the affidavit, Mr. Blagojevich discussed whether he could strip a Chicago children’s hospital of $8 million in state money after a hospital executive declined to make a $50,000 contribution. He also discussed withholding state assistance from the financially struggling Tribune Company, which owns The Chicago Tribune, unless the newspaper dismissed unfriendly editorial writers.
Mr. Blagojevich’s chief of staff, John Harris, was also named in the complaint. After a brief appearance in federal court Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Blagojevich, dressed in sport clothes and tennis shoes, was released on a $4,500 cash bond. An official at the governor’s office had no immediate comment on Tuesday.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, said that Mr. Blagojevich had gone on a “political corruption crime spree,” and that his actions had “taken us to a truly new low.”
“The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.
He added that the complaint “makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever.” In one passage of the complaint, Mr. Blagojevich is quoted cursing Mr. Obama in apparent frustration that “they’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation.”
The arrest leaves the fate of Mr. Obama’s vacant Senate seat in limbo. Mr. Blagojevich still has the power to name a successor to Mr. Obama, though experts in Illinois politics suggested that the legislature may move quickly to impeach him.
The Illinois Republican Party said Tuesday that Mr. Blagojevich should resign immediately “for the good of the state.” Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said that “no appointment by this governor under these circumstances could produce a credible replacement.”
Emil Jones, president of the state Senate, said he would call the body back into session to write a law to schedule a special election for Mr. Obama’s Senate seat.
Mr. Blagojevich, 51, is serving his second term and has portrayed himself as a reformer. His predecessor, George Ryan, a Republican, was convicted of racketeering and fraud in 2006, and is now in prison.
But members of Mr. Blagojevich’s administration have been under investigation for more than a year. And this spring, the governor’s office was upended by the corruption trial of Antoin Rezko, a political fundraiser, when witnesses said Mr. Blagojevich had participated in kickback schemes that led to Mr. Rezko’s conviction. Mr. Blagojevich was not charged in that case.
Until Tuesday, though, few here could have imagined that the decision on replacing Mr. Obama would have resulted in explosive criminal charges against the governor. Under Illinois law, Mr. Blagojevich has sole authority to fill the seat being vacated by Mr. Obama, who was elected to the Senate in 2004. Mr. Obama’s resignation from the Senate took effect Nov. 16.
According to the criminal complaint, while talking on the telephone about the Senate seat replacement with his chief of staff and an adviser, Mr. Blagojevich said he needed to consider his family and their financial struggles. “I want to make money,” he said, according to prosecutors. He then added, they allege, that he wanted to make $250,000 to $300,000 a year.
Mr. Blagojevich even contemplated stepping into the Senate himself, prosecutors said.
“I’m going to keep this Senate option for me a real possibility, you know, and therefore I can drive a hard bargain,” Mr. Blagojevich said in a recorded conversation with an adviser, according to the affidavit.
According to the affidavit from prosecutors, Mr. Blagojevich told an adviser last week that he might “get some (money) upfront, maybe” from one of the candidates hoping to replace Mr. Obama. That person was identified only as “Candidate 5.”
In an earlier recorded conversation, prosecutors say, Mr. Blagojevich said he was approached by an associate of “Candidate 5” with an offer of $500,000 in exchange for the Senate seat.
The authorities also say Mr. Blagojevich threatened to withhold state assistance from the Tribune Company, which filed for bankruptcy on Monday, as it sought to sell Wrigley Field last month in a bid to generate cash. According to prosecutors, Mr. Blagojevich and Mr. Harris made it clear that the company would only receive assistance from the Illinois Finance Authority if the Tribune fired unfriendly editorial-board members.
Tuesday afternoon, the Tribune Company, which is run by the real-estate investor Sam Zell, released a statement saying “no one working for the company or on its behalf has ever attempted to influence staffing decisions at the Chicago Tribune or any aspect of the newspaper’s editorial coverage as a result of conversations with officials in the governor’s administration.”
At Tuesday’s press conference, Robert Grant, chief of the F.B.I.’s Chicago office, gave details of Mr. Blagojevich’s arrest. The governor, he said, was woken at 6 a.m. with a telephone call from the F.B.I., telling him that two agents were waiting outside with a warrant for his arrest, and that he should quietly open his door and let them in, to avoid waking his sleeping children. Mr. Blagojevich’s first response was, “Is this a joke?” Mr. Grant said.
Susan Saulny contributed reporting from Chicago.