By Jeff Coen, Rick Pearson, John Chase and David Kidwell
Tribune staff reports
11:06 AM EST, December 10, 2008
Illinoisans awoke to news that their governor had been arrested, handcuffed and hauled before a federal magistrate on sweeping charges he conspired to sell his office many times over--including putting a price on the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.
U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald said the governor's actions forced his office to intervene. "Gov. Blagojevich has been arrested in the middle of what we can only describe as a political corruption crime spree," he said. Fitzgerald said Blagojevich's "conduct would make [ Abraham] Lincoln roll over in his grave."
The well-coiffed governor, sporting a turtleneck beneath a blue Nike track suit and running shoes, was released on his own recognizance and walked out not only free, but still empowered to make an appointment to the Senate seat federal prosecutors say he tried to corrupt.
"They're doing well. He's sad, surprised and innocent," Blagojevich attorney Sheldon Sorosky told reporters outside Blagojevich's home Tuesday night.
Throughout the day, the halls of state government in Springfield and Chicago were humming with calls for his resignation or impeachmentand lawmakers planned an emergency session to schedule a special election and to strip the governor of his sole authority to fill the Senate post.
Even for a public with a jaded view of Illinois politics, the arrest of a sitting governor on such audacious charges left many questioning who was in charge of a dysfunctional state government. State workers in the 16-story Thompson Center huddled around television sets to watch Fitzgerald detail the charges against Blagojevich.
A city that little more than a month ago shook off the reputation of machine clout and celebrated one of its own winning the pinnacle of American politics now finds itself struggling to understand how its two-term Democratic governor had been accused of taking public service to a new low.
"If it isn't the most corrupt state in the United States, it's certainly one hell of a competitor," said Robert Grant, special agent in charge of Chicago's FBI office. "Even the most cynical agents in our office were shocked."
Most shocking are the details that emerged Tuesday in a 76-page arrest affidavit--mostly in the governor's own secretly recorded and profane words--that authorities say laid bare his most tightly held and incriminating conversations.
Blagojevich, who turns 52 Wednesday, was elected twice on vows to reform the culture of corruption that engulfed his predecessor, Republican George Ryan. But after years of well-publicized federal corruption investigations that touched almost every aspect of his administration, in the end it was 45 days of wiretaps that spurred authorities to act swiftly.
The governor and his chief of staff, John Harris, were simultaneously charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and solicitation to commit bribery as part of what officials say was a wide-ranging scheme to shakedown campaign donors and politicians for high-paying posts and millions of dollars in campaign contributions.
Allegedly for sale: state jobs, state contracts and regulatory favors. In one surreal development, prosecutors said Blagojevich even tried to get critical editorial writers from the Chicago Tribune fired in exchange for helping parent Tribune Co. with a state plan to finance the purchase of Wrigley Field.
"At the end of the day, the conduct we have before us is appalling," said Fitzgerald, showing little of his characteristic restraint in detailing the government's charges.
The charge Fitzgerald said represented Blagojevich's "most cynical behavior" was the governor's effort to sell the Senate seat.
The affidavit quoted the governor on a telephone call the day before Obama won his historic presidential victory talking about driving a "hard bargain." Blagojevich called the Senate seat "a [expletive] valuable thing. You just don't give it away for nothing."
"I've got this thing and it's [expletive] golden and uh, uh, I'm not just giving it up for [expletive] nothing," he said two days later, according to the affidavit.
Among the prizes Blagojevich envisioned were a position in Obama's Cabinet, an ambassadorship, a $300,000 job with a union-backed group--even a highly paid position for his wife, Patricia.
In one recording, the governor expresses frustration at his inability to have his offers considered and refers to Obama in extremely crude language: "[Expletive] him. For nothing? [Expletive] him."
Prosecutors said Blagojevich gave serious consideration to appointing himself to the Senate seat, believing himself to be "stuck" in his job as governor. Recordings, according to the affidavit, showed Blagojevich thinking about going to the Senate to avoid potential impeachment in Springfield and to try to remake his image for a possible 2016 run for the presidency.
Little more than a month ago, a Tribune poll found Blagojevich had a 13 percent job approval rating among voters--a record low in more than three decades of surveys on statewide officials.
Obama, who made much during his presidential campaign of saying he escaped Chicago's political culture of sleaze in his career as a state and U.S. senator, found the process of picking his successor mired in corruption.
The president-elect said Tuesday that he had no conversations with Blagojevich about his successor in the Senate. But he would not answer whether any of his aides had discussions with a governor looking for an opportunity to deal. Fitzgerald said prosecutors were making "no allegations that [Obama was] aware of anything."
Only a day earlier, when Blagojevich was in his element, playing the role of political populist before protesting workers at the Republic Window & Door plant, the governor said emphatically that any conversations he has had were "always lawful." The governor already had been charged in the sealed Dec. 7 complaint.
But time after time, in recordings described in the affidavit, Blagojevich pressured contractors and other recipients of taxpayer funds to pony up to his campaign.
"If they don't perform, [expletive] 'em," he said, according to the affidavit, in one instance involving an expected $500,000 in donations from a tollway construction contractor.
The affidavit made anonymous references to many people, some as potential victims and some as helping facilitate schemes on behalf of Blagojevich. Fitzgerald said the investigation was not complete as federal authorities continued to try to track down which schemes were carried out and who might be involved.
Among them is an individual described in the affidavit as Fundraiser A and chairman of Friends of Blagojevich. Blagojevich's brother Robert is his campaign chairman. Fundraiser A is listed several times in the affidavit as helping the governor pressure contributors.
At one point when the governor remarks that he is not involved in any illegal activity, his brother responds by saying "unless prospectively somebody gets you on a wire." Rob Blagojevich could not immediately be reached for comment.
On Tuesday, even before Blagojevich left the Dirksen Federal Building, the pressure was mounting for him to step down or be removed. Every statewide office holder in Illinois except Blagojevich himself called for his resignation.
The developments have raised questions about who will serve as the state's chief executive. But Blagojevich remains empowered in the post unless he either resigns, is removed from office by the legislature or convicted of the crimes of which he's been accused.
The tumultuous events left even one of the governor's harshest--and closest--critics saddened. "It's a terrible day, terrible," said his estranged father-in-law, Ald. Richard Mell (33rd). "My main concern right now is for my daughter and my grandchildren. That's all I want to say right now."
Tribune reporters Monique Garcia, Susan Kuczka, David Heinzmann and Ray Long contributed to this report.
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