Gov. Rod Blagojevich became the state's first Democratic chief executive in more than a quarter of a century after vowing to reform what he labeled the culture of corruption surrounding his predecessor that had fed deep cynicism among Illinoisans.
But little more than a year after replacing George Ryan in office in 2003, Blagojevich found his administration at the early stages of what became a host of state and federal investigations into allegations of wrongdoing involving state hiring, board appointments, contracting and fundraising that battered his tenure.
In their prosecution of Blagojevich fundraisers and allies, dubbed "Operation Board Games," federal prosecutors detailed a scheme that began only months after Blagojevich took office in which top fundraiser and adviser Antoin "Tony" Rezko conspired with longtime GOP government apparatchik Stuart Levine to split kickbacks from a state pension deal. Rezko also helped ensure Levine's reappointment to a state pension board.
As part of the investigation, in which 13 people have been indicted or convicted, kickbacks were often the prescribed price of doing high-level business, be it the pension board for state teachers or the panel that decided whether hospitals could expand their facilities. And the extortion efforts went beyond merely enriching the participants to include soliciting campaign funds for Blagojevich.
At the same time, as Blagojevich began gearing up for his 2006 re-election bid, the clouds of scandal grew deeper. U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald acknowledged federal prosecutors had spent more than a year investigating fraud in state hiring that involved "multiple state agencies" and developed "a number of credible witnesses." Federal prosecutors also were looking into a $1,500 check written to one of Blagojevich's children by the husband of a recently appointed state worker.
In the month before Blagojevich was re-elected, Rezko was indicted on corruption charges while his ally, Levine, pleaded guilty to wringing cash from firms seeking state business. Federal prosecutors also were alleging Rezko and Christopher Kelly, another top fundraiser and adviser to the governor, had been influence peddling. Kelly later was indicted on unrelated federal tax charges.
They also began investigating real estate deals by First Lady Patricia Blagojevich in which she received hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions from politically connected clients, some of whom won millions of dollars in state business.
As prosecutors won a conviction in June of this year on Rezko's corruption charges, they also began climbing the ladder of Blagojevich's inner circle. In October, the Tribune disclosed that John Wyma, the governor's longtime friend, former congressional chief of staff and major state lobbyist, was named in a subpoena over his work for a hospital client.
On Friday, the Tribune disclosed Wyma was cooperating with federal authorities and his cooperation led to investigators recording the governor.
Here is a timeline of the investigation:
June 7, 2004: Stuart Levine, a longtime Republican reappointed to the powerful Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board, abruptly resigns on the eve of several important hospital expansion votes. The revelation is the first indication that the Blagojevich administration is under federal criminal investigation.
June 27, 2004: The Tribune discloses that an official for one hospital seeking permission to expand was wearing a federal bug during meetings in an effort to expose extortion attempts by Levine and others for contributions to Blagojevich.
July 2, 2004: Levine resigns from his seat on the board of the state Teachers' Retirement System. It remains undisclosed that federal authorities had secretly taped Levine's conversations.
May 9, 2005: Levine is indicted on corruption charges. Federal subpoenas are issued to numerous administration sources, including top Blagojevich fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko
May 20, 2005: The governor's office acknowledges to the Tribune that Rezko has an ongoing eight-year professional relationship with Patricia Blagojevich's home-based real estate brokerage, River Realty Inc.
Sept 15, 2005: Prominent Democratic fundraiser Joseph Cari and a former lawyer for the state's teacher's pension board pleads guilty in an extortion scheme that steered state pension business to favored companies in exchange for campaign contributions to a high-ranking public official described in court documents only as "Public official A."
Oct. 25, 2005: The Tribune discloses a federal grand jury investigation into the alleged political hiring practices of the Blagojevich administration, including the governor's top hiring aide, Joseph Cini.
Sept. 10, 2006: The Tribune reveals that the FBI is investigating allegations by a one-time Blagojevich family friend that she had concerns her state job may have come in return for a $1,500 personal check her husband wrote to one of Blagojevich's children.
Sept. 17, 2006: The Tribune reports that the Blagojevich administration skirted state hiring rules to give jobs to at least 360 people whose applications were sent through back channels by the governor's offices and politically connected officials.
Aug. 5, 2006: The Tribune reports that Levine is cooperating with the federal investigation of state government.
Oct. 11, 2006: Blagojevich confidant and top fundraiser Rezko is indicted on federal charges he sought millions of dollars in kickbacks and campaign donations from firms seeking state business.
Oct. 27, 2006: Political insider Levine pleads guilty in a scheme to squeeze millions of dollars from firms seeking state business. In court papers, federal authorities spell out allegations that Rezko and another schemer, identified by sources as Blagojevich confidant and top fundraiser Christopher Kelly, were using their influence for corrupt purposes.
Oct. 27, 2006: The Tribune reveals that Blagojevich's wife, Patricia, earned more than $113,000 in real estate commissions in 2006 through a woman with a no-bid state contract whose banker husband--a major Blagojevich fundraiser--has business pending before state regulators. Both the FBI and the Cook County state's attorney's office begin investigations.
March 9, 2007: Cook County prosecutors charge the woman, Anita Mahajan, with billing the state for more than $2 million in services her drug-screening firm never performed.
March 14, 2007: The Tribune reveals Mahajan's husband, Amrish, is the driving force behind his wife's company and helped raise more than a half million dollars for Blagojevich's campaigns since 2001.
April 8, 2007: Tribune reports that a close business associate of Amrish Mahajan, Amrit Patel, hosted a fundraiser for Blagojevich and was involved in a real estate deal with Patricia Blagojevich, while seeking to expand his Dunkin' Donuts business into the state's tollway oases. The deal was never consummated.
May 23, 2007: The Tribune reveals that federal prosecutors have subpoenaed records from Blagojevich's campaign fund as part of the sweeping corruption probe into whether top aides and advisers exchanged state business and jobs for political support.
Nov. 4, 2007: A Tribune investigation reveals that influential lobbyist John Wyma, a longtime Blagojevich friend and confidant, bought a $650,000 home from one of his clients that sent real estate commissions of more than $30,000 to the governor's wife. The client, Mark Wight, later won $10 million in state road contracts.
Dec. 7: 2007: The Tribune reports that authorities are investigating Patricia Blagojevich's real estate business as part of their three-year corruption probe into allegations of favoritism and fraud within the administration.
Dec. 13, 2007: Kelly, a Chicago area businessman and chief Blagojevich fundraiser, is indicted on unrelated federal tax evasion charges involving huge gambling losses.
March 6, 2008: The federal trial of Rezko begins.
April 22, 2008: Ali Ata, appointed by Blagojevich as executive director of the Illinois Finance Authority, admits buying the $127,000 job by contributing to the governor's campaign, pleads guilty to obstruction of justice and agrees to cooperate.
April 26, 2008: A Tribune investigation reveals at least three of every four $25,000 donors to Blagojevich got something from the administration--including jobs, contracts or favorable regulatory rulings.
June 4, 2008: After nearly three months of testimony that lays bare some of the innermost workings of the Blagojevich administration, Rezko is convicted of using his political ties to the governor to orchestrate a multimillion-dollar kickback scheme.
May 31, 2008: Lawmakers pass ethics reforms targeted directly at Blagojevich and his record-setting efforts to collect campaign contributions from state contractors.
July 30, 2008: The Tribune reports that in the month since lawmakers passed an ethics bill outlawing the governor's ability to take donations from state contractors, the governor ramped up his efforts by collecting more than a quarter of a million dollars from those with business before the state.
Aug. 25, 2008: Blagojevich vetoes the ethics bill saying he wants it to be tougher and to include lawmakers as well as him.
Oct. 19, 2008: The Tribune reports that more than three quarters of the $700,000 in real estate commissions earned by Patricia Blagojevich's home-based sales company since 2000 came from state contractors, Blagojevich's family and others with political ties.
Oct. 23, 2008: The Tribune reports that Wyma, the longtime friend and former congressional chief of staff to Blagojevich, is under investigation by federal authorities, who are probing his lobbying activity for at least one hospital client.
Oct. 30, 2008: Springfield millionaire and longtime political power broker William Cellini, who for four decades played an enormous role in Illinois' political leadership, is indicted on charges he extorted campaign contributions for Blagojevich.
Dec. 5, 2008: The Tribune reveals that federal authorities have made covert tape recordings of Blagojevich and that Wyma has cooperated with investigators.
Dec. 9, 2008: F.B.I agents arrest Blagojevich and his chief of staff at their homes on a broad array of corruption charges, including asking for favors in exchange for his selection of a replacement in the senate for President-elect Barack Obama.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun