A three-year federal corruption investigation of pay-to-play politics in Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration has expanded to include his impending selection of a new U.S. senator to succeed President-elect Barack Obama, the Tribune has learned.
Federal authorities got approval from a judge before the November general election to secretly record the governor, sources told the Tribune, and among their concerns was whether the selection process might be tainted. That possibility has become a focus in an intensifying investigation that has included recordings of the governor and the cooperation of one of his closest friends.The governor has not been accused of any wrongdoing. The specific contents of the recent recordings have not been disclosed. Blagojevich has said the appointment of a Senate successor, which is his choice alone, could come in a matter of weeks.
Speaking to reporters Monday for the first time since the Tribune revealed federal investigators had recorded him and others as part of their corruption probe, Blagojevich said his discussions were "always lawful." He also defended close confidant John Wyma, whose cooperation with federal agents helped lead to the recordings, as "an honest person who's conducted himself in an honest way."
"I should say if anybody wants to tape my conversations, go right ahead, feel free to do it," he said. "I appreciate anybody who wants to tape me openly and notoriously, and those who feel like they want to sneakily, and wear taping devices, I would remind them that it kind of smells like Nixon and Watergate."
Unlike the recordings that the federal government has of Blagojevich, the tapes that led to President Richard Nixon's 1974 resignation over the burglary of Democratic offices at the Watergate complex and the ensuing coverup were made by Nixon himself.
Regardless of "whether you tape me privately or publicly, I can tell you that whatever I say is always lawful and the things I'm interested in are always lawful," Blagojevich said. "And if there are any things out there like that, what you'll hear is a governor who tirelessly and endlessly figures out ways to help average, ordinary working people."
Blagojevich's comments came amid increasing concern by Democrats that the governor's pending appointment of a Senate successor may become politically tainted as a result of the investigations surrounding his administration. Federal investigators have been looking into allegations of corruption regarding state jobs, appointments and contracts in connection with Blagojevich's prolific fundraising.
Blagojevich has not been charged with any wrongdoing and contended that if federal investigators are "going to those lengths and extents [of obtaining recordings], if in fact that's true, that would suggest all the past has been pretty good."
"I don't believe there's any cloud that hangs over me. I think there's nothing but sunshine hanging over me," the governor said.
Blagojevich made the remarks at a Monday morning visit to laid-off workers staging a sit-in at the Republic Windows & Doors plant on Goose Island.
Later Monday, he met for 90 minutes with Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., the South Side and southwest suburban congressman who has been the most visibly active campaigner for the appointment to replace Obama. Jackson, who was among the last high-profile Senate successor candidates to speak with Blagojevich, has had disagreements with the governor and is not close to him.
Blagojevich issued a strong defense of Wyma and accused the Tribune of publishing misinformation and possibly defamatory material.
"To begin with, they didn't get it right," he said. "John Wyma's lawyer put out a statement. The Tribune was wrong and very well may have defamed him."
But the statement from Wyma's lawyer did not directly address the Tribune story and instead appeared directed at media outlets and others who reported Wyma wore a wire.
The Tribune noted that Wyma's cooperation with federal investigators helped lead to recordings of Blagojevich but did not report that he wore a wire.
Wyma's lawyer also did not respond to the Tribune's report that Wyma was cooperating with investigators.
"John Wyma is a friend of mine, he was my chief of staff, and I'm sure whatever he does, he does ethically and follows the rules," the governor said.
Blagojevich said he would not remove Wyma from his inner circle of advisers.
He also told the Tribune that Wyma was not involved in the deliberations over an Obama successor.
"No, I consider him a friend. and I don't consider him as anything but a friend. And to someone who, as I've known him, always has been an honest person who's conducted himself in an honest way," Blagojevich said of Wyma. "That's the John Wyma I know and it's the John Wyma that [Obama's incoming chief of staff, Rep.] Rahm Emanuel knows and a lot of other people know."
Blagojevich said he had last spoken to Wyma the day before Thanksgiving, when he offered holiday wishes and "talked a little bit about the plight of the Detroit Lions. He's from Michigan."
And the governor indicated he was not concerned about Wyma cooperating with federal investigators.
"Look, I believe everybody should just tell the truth and pursue the truth and be truthful and then you do that and everything's fine," he said.
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