As Gov. Rod Blagojevich was trying to pick Illinois' next U.S. senator, businessmen with ties to both the governor and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. discussed raising at least $1 million for Blagojevich's campaign as a way to encourage him to pick Jackson for the job, the Tribune has learned.
Blagojevich made an appearance at an Oct. 31 luncheon meeting at the India House restaurant in Schaumburg sponsored by Oak Brook businessman Raghuveer Nayak, a major Blagojevich supporter who also has fundraising and business ties to the Jackson family, according to several attendees and public records.
Two businessmen who attended the meeting and spoke to the Tribune on the condition of anonymity said that Nayak and Blagojevich aide Rajinder Bedi privately told many of the more than two dozen attendees the fundraising effort was aimed at supporting Jackson's bid for the Senate.
Among the attendees was a Blagojevich fundraiser already under scrutiny by federal investigators, Joliet pharmacist Harish Bhatt.
That meeting led to a Blagojevich fundraiser Saturday in Elmhurst, co-sponsored by Nayak and attended by Jesse Jackson Jr.'s brother, Jonathan, as well as Blagojevich, according to several people who were there. Nayak and Jonathan Jackson go back years and the two even went into business together years ago as part of a land purchase on the South Side.
Blagojevich and the congressman met to discuss the Senate seat on Monday, one day before federal prosecutors arrested Blagojevich and charged him with trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. As part of the charges, prosecutors alleged that Blagojevich was considering awarding the seat to a politician identified as "Senate Candidate 5" because emissaries for that candidate were promising to raise as much as $1.5 million for Blagojevich's campaign fund.
The Tribune has identified Jesse Jackson Jr. as "Senate Candidate 5." Jackson has denied knowing anything about efforts by emissaries or anybody close to him promising to raise money for Blagojevich in exchange for being appointed to the Senate. He has been contacted by federal prosecutors as part of the probe and has agreed to meet with them.
Jackson's congressional spokesman Rick Bryant said Thursday that Nayak is a "family friend and supporter" of the congressman as well as his well-known father, Rev. Jesse Jackson. The congressman and Nayak have spoken about Jackson's desire to succeed Obama.
"He has talked to [Nayak] about the Senate seat and he has mentioned his interest," Bryant said of his boss. "But he never asked him to do anything."
Jackson's newly retained attorney, James Montgomery, said Wednesday he could not rule out that such possibilities were discussed with Blagojevich by people who did not have his client's blessing.
Despite the parallels, it could not be determined if the actions outlined by the Tribune were the same as those discussed in the FBI affidavit that accompanied the pay-to-play charges against Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris. But the details, gathered from more than a dozen interviews, make clear that some political operatives were connecting support for Blagojevich to his choice for the Senate seat.
Iftekhar Shareef, past president of the influential Federation of Indian Associations, said he attended the Saturday fundraiser for the governor at the invitation of Bedi and Nayak. Shareef said the congressman's brother Jonathan also attended.
"Raghu [Nayak] is always talking about how we need to appoint Jesse to the Senate," Shareef said. "They are very close. Raghu is close with all the Jacksons. He even asked me to write a letter to the governor supporting Jesse Jackson for the Senate." Shareef said he wrote the letter.
A half-dozen other attendees at the two events said they never heard talk about trying to get Jackson placed into the Senate. Bedi's brother, Jatinder, who is an editor at the Indian Reporter newspaper, acknowledged being at the India House event but said "there was no discussion of the Senate seat."
Rajinder Bedi couldn't be reached for comment.
Reached by telephone at his home, Nayak declined to comment.
Nayak, 54, is a political and community leader in Chicago's Indian community who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Blagojevich, including more than $200,000 from Nayak, his wife and his various corporations. Nayak and his wife have donated more than $22,000 to Jackson, federal records show, and raised more for the congressman.
Nayak owns a series of surgery centers on Chicago's North Side. He also founded and until recently retained an ownership stake in a drug testing laboratory with millions of dollars in Illinois public aid contracts.
Satish "Sonny" Gabhawala, owner of the Chicago Park Hotel in Harvey, said he was at the Oct. 31 meeting and saw Nayak and Rajinder Bedi approach another Blagojevich fundraiser, Babu Patel.
"They were trying to convince Babu to use his influence to get the governor to appoint Jesse Jackson to the Senate," Gabhawala said.
Patel, contacted Thursday evening, acknowledged the conversation but said he never spoke with Blagojevich about the Senate appointment.
Bedi is the managing director for the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity's Office of Trade and Investment, overseeing nine foreign trade offices around the world from China to Israel. He has also been a key fundraiser for Blagojevich.
Blagojevich has referred to Bedi, who wears a turban, as "My Sikh warrior."
The two businessmen who spoke to the Tribune on the condition of anonymity said they did so because they were afraid of repercussions in the close-knit and politically active Indian business community.
One said Nayak and Bedi told him and others of their plan to help Jackson.
The second said he overheard Nayak and Bedi discussing plans with Bhatt, the Joliet pharmacist..
"Raghu said he needed to raise a million for Rod to make sure Jesse got the seat," the second businessman said. "He said, 'I can raise half of it, $500,000.' The idea was that the other two would help raise the rest."
Bhatt, whose two Basinger's Pharmacy outlets were searched by the FBI last week, has been the focus of a state and federal investigations into whether campaign donations were made in exchange for regulatory favors.
Bhatt is a prominent Indian businessman who helped the state's top pharmacy regulator win his job. The Tribune reported last year that state pharmacy auditors probing allegations of Medicaid fraud at Basinger's complained that their bosses thwarted the investigation, allegations Bhatt has adamantly denied in interviews with the Tribune.