Federal investigators recently made covert tape recordings of Gov. Rod Blagojevich in the most dramatic step yet in their corruption investigation of him and his administration, the Tribune has learned.
As part of this undercover effort, one of the governor's closest confidants and former aides cooperated with investigators, and that led to recordings of the governor and others, sources said.The cooperation of John Wyma, 42, one of the state's most influential lobbyists, is the most stunning evidence yet that Blagojevich's once-tight inner circle appears to be collapsing under the pressure of myriad pay-to-play inquiries.
Wyma, Blagojevich's chief of staff when he was in Congress, has long been one of the few advisers trusted by Blagojevich and kept in the loop on matters of policy and politics. As the federal probe intensified, Wyma met privately with the governor and his former chief of staff at the governor's campaign headquarters on the North Side for 90 minutes on Oct. 22.
Confronted outside that meeting, Wyma declined to talk to Tribune reporters about what the meeting was about before jumping into his car. The next day, the Tribune was the first to report that Wyma's name appeared in a federal subpoena delivered to Provena Health, a former client of his.
The subpoena sought records about Provena's lobbying relationship with Wyma, the hospital's efforts to win state approval of a new heart program and a $25,000 donation the company's for-profit affiliate gave to Blagojevich's campaign fund.
On Thursday, Wyma did not return phone messages and e-mails from the Tribune. His attorney, former federal prosecutor Zachary Fardon, declined to comment for this article.
The governor, a Democrat contemplating seeking a third term in 2010, has not been charged with any wrongdoing and has denied involvement in any illegal schemes. He repeatedly has said, "The truth shall set you free" in answers to reporters on every new development in the investigation. But the news of the expanding probe has crippled Blagojevich's approval ratings, which sank to an all-time low of 13 percent in a recent Tribune poll.
Wyma's name has surfaced repeatedly in many aspects of the federal investigation, including allegations of pay-to-play contracts, fundraising and even the investigation of the real estate business of First Lady Patricia Blagojevich.
In 2005, another Wyma client won $10 million in state tollway contracts after the owner of a company paid Patricia Blagojevich's home-based real estate company more than $30,000 in commissions on the sale of his condominium to Wyma.
Mark Wight, owner of the architectural firm Wight & Co., said he and Wyma worked out the terms of the sale in private and the $650,000 condominium never was listed.
Indeed, Wyma's and the Blagojeviches' relationship has always been both personal and professional. The governor routinely reported exchanging personal gifts and often appeared at Wyma-sponsored fundraisers where Wyma's clients hobnobbed with the governor before turning over checks for his campaign fund.
On at least two occasions this summer, Wyma held private fundraising events for Blagojevich at a downtown restaurant and a Rush Street restaurant.
This year, the Tribune reported on an exclusive club of Blagojevich donors who contributed $25,000 to Friends of Blagojevich that included hundreds of men, women and companies who enjoyed favorable state rulings, contracts or state appointments after their donations. Many of those donations came from the Wyma fundraisers.
The fundraisers occurred as legislation was sitting on Blagojevich's desk that would have banned taking campaign cash from state contractors.
Blagojevich has been under federal scrutiny for more than three years despite riding into office as a reformer who vowed to overhaul state government following the scandal-scarred administration of Republican George Ryan, who is serving a 6 1/2-year prison sentence for corruption.
But within two years of taking office, Blagojevich found himself in the middle of controversy as federal investigators probed allegations of corruption at the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board and the Teachers' Retirement System.
The governor initially tried to dismiss the allegations as leftover corruption from the Ryan administration, but the probe quickly snared people close to him, including Antoin "Tony" Rezko, another of his closest fundraisers and advisers.
During Rezko's trial, which resulted in his conviction in June, Blagojevich's name popped up repeatedly as being at the center of some of the schemes to trade state favors for campaign contributions.
Among the most explicit allegations, former Illinois Finance Authority Executive Director Ali Ata testified that he attended a meeting at Rezko's offices with Rezko and the governor before he was hired. At the meeting, Ata said, he brought a $25,000 check that was placed on the table in front of Blagojevich, who then mentioned a state job.
So far, 13 people have been indicted in the investigation code-named Operation Board Games. The latest came in October, when longtime Springfield power broker William Cellini was accused of extorting campaign contributions for Blagojevich from a Hollywood producer whose investment firm was seeking business with the state.
In tapes aired at Rezko's trial, targets of the investigation were heard indicating Blagojevich was aware of the shakedown scheme.
In recent months, Rezko and his attorneys have been in talks with federal prosecutors about a cooperation deal. But this week Rezko received a January court date for his sentencing, an indication there is no deal.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun