Illinois governor, aide arrested

Federal conspiracy charges allege attempts to sell Senate seat vacated by Obama

December 10, 2008|By Jeff Coen, Rick Pearson and David Kidwell | Jeff Coen, Rick Pearson and David Kidwell,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO - Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich was arrested yesterday in what U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald called a "political corruption crime spree" that included alleged attempts to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.

Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, were named in a federal criminal complaint that alleged a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy aimed at providing financial benefits to the governor, his political fund and his wife.

Blagojevich was taken into federal custody at his home in Chicago yesterday morning.

Blagojevich's arrest dealt a tumultuous blow to Illinois government, raising questions about the leadership of the state and the fate of the open Senate seat - which the governor has the sole power to fill under the state constitution.

The allegations against Blagojevich provide a sharp contrast to a Democratic governor who campaigned for office promising reforms in the aftermath of disgraced, scandal-tainted Republican chief executive George Ryan. The complaint comes a little more than two years after Ryan was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison on federal corruption charges.

Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn called on Blagojevich to step aside at least temporarily or resign.

"I think he knows what he needs to do for the people," said Quinn, a Democrat.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who had been viewed as a likely 2010 primary challenger if Blagojevich sought a third term, said he should immediately step down. Madigan also said she was moving forward on legal issues if the governor did not resign.

Despite facing myriad federal investigations throughout his nearly six years in office, Blagojevich has maintained that he committed no wrongdoing. On Monday, Blagojevich said any discussions he has had were "always lawful."

Blagojevich's and Harris' arrests followed a series of Chicago Tribune articles revealing that federal investigators had compiled secret recordings of the governor with the cooperation of a longtime confidant. In recent days, the focus expanded beyond a probe of allegations of wrongdoing involving state jobs, contracts and appointments in exchange for campaign dollars to the possibility that the Senate succession process had become tainted by pay-to-play politics.

Spurring federal investigators to act was Blagojevich's pending appointment of a Senate successor to Obama, whose resignation took effect Nov. 16. Blagojevich had said he expected to name a new senator near the end of the year.

Prosecutors said they had numerous recorded conversations of Blagojevich discussing the merits of potential candidates, including their abilities to benefit the people of Illinois as well as the financial and political benefits he and his wife could receive.

Despite his arrest, Blagojevich continues to have the authority to name Obama's successor, and some state lawmakers discussed looking for ways to wrest it from him.

Prosecutors alleged that Blagojevich wanted an appointment as secretary of health and human services or as an ambassador in the new Obama administration or to be placed in a lucrative union-affiliated job in exchange for naming Valerie Jarrett, a close friend and adviser to the president-elect, to the Senate seat. Jarrett eventually took herself out of the running, and Fitzgerald said yesterday that "we make no allegation" that Obama was aware of Blagojevich's attempt to leverage the appointment.

Fitzgerald quoted a Blagojevich conversation in which the governor said the Senate seat is "a bleeping valuable thing. You just don't give it away. ... I've got this thing, and it's bleeping golden."

Obama spoke briefly about the arrest yesterday in Chicago.

"Obviously, like the rest of the people of Illinois, I am saddened and sobered by the news that came out of the U.S. attorney's office today," Obama said. "But as this is an ongoing investigation involving the governor, I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on the issue at this time."

Later, he told reporters, "I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so I was not aware of what was happening. And as I said, it's a sad day for Illinois."

Blagojevich and Harris also allegedly 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., which also owns The Baltimore Sun.

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