Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, were arrested Tuesday for what U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald called a "political corruption crime spree" that included attempts to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.
Blagojevich and Harris were named in a federal criminal complaint that alleged a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy aimed at providing financial benefits to the governor, his political fund and to his wife, First Lady Patricia Blagojevich.
FBI agents at his North Side home Tuesday morning—one day shy of his 52nd birthday.
The arrests dealt a tumultuous blow to Illinois government, at once raising questions about the leadership of the state and the fate of the open Senate seat—which the governor alone has the power to fill under the state law.
The allegations against Blagojevich provide a sharp contrast to a Democratic governor who campaigned for office promising reforms in the wake of disgraced, scandal-tainted Republican chief executive George Ryan. The complaint against Blagojevich comes little more than two years after Ryan was sentenced to 61/2 years in prison on federal corruption charges.
Robert Grant, special agent in charge of the FBI's Chicago office, characterized Illinois' place in the pantheon of political corruption.
"If it isn't the most corrupt state in the United States, it's certainly one hell of a competitor," Grant said. And Fitzgerald, whose office also prosecuted Blagojevich's predecessor, said Blagojevich's "conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave."
Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn called on Blagojevich to step aside, at least temporarily, or resign because the governor is "seriously impeded from carrying out his oath of office."
"I think he knows what he needs to do for the people," said Quinn, a Democrat.
Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan, who had been viewed as a likely 2010 challenger if Blagojevich sought a third term, said the governor should immediately step down. Madigan, the daughter of longtime Blagojevich nemesis House Speaker Michael Madigan, also said she was moving forward on legal issues if the governor did not resign.
Despite facing myriad federal investigations throughout his five-year tenure, Blagojevich has maintained he committed no wrongdoing. On Monday, Blagojevich said any discussions he has had were "always lawful."
The stunning, early morning arrest followed a series of Tribune stories revealing federal investigators had compiled secret recordings of the governor with the cooperation of a longtime confidant. In recent days, the focus of federal investigators expanded beyond a probe of allegations of wrongdoing involving state jobs, contracts and appointments in exchange for campaign dollars to the possibility that the Senate succession process had become tainted by pay-to-play politics.
Blagojevich and Harris were arrested simultaneously at their homes about 6:15 a.m., according to the FBI. They were transported to FBI headquarters in Chicago. Blagojevich appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Nan Nolan early in the afternoon and heard the charges read against him before being released on his own recognizance.
Spurring federal investigators to act was Blagojevich's pending appointment of a Senate successor to Obama, whose resignation took effect Nov. 16. Blagojevich had said he expected to name a new senator around the end of the year.
Prosecutors said they had numerous recorded conversations of Blagojevich discussing the merits of potential candidates, including their abilities to benefit the people of Illinois as well as the financial and political benefits he and his wife could receive.
Prosecutors said their recordings revealed Blagojevich expressed feeling "stuck" as a sitting governor and he spent a large amount of time weighing whether he should appoint himself to the vacancy—possibly to avoid impeachment and help remake his image for a potential 2016 run for the presidency. A recent Tribune poll found Blagojevich with a record low 13 percent job approval rating.
Under state law, the governor has the sole unfettered discretion to name Obama's appointment. Despite his arrest, he continues to have the naming authority and some lawmakers discussed looking for ways to wrest it from him.
Prosecutors alleged Blagojevich sought appointment as secretary of Health and Human Services or wanted an ambassadorship in the new Obama administration, or to be placed in a lucrative union-affiliated job in exchange for appointing Valerie Jarrett, a close friend and adviser to the president-elect to the Senate seat. Jarrett eventually took herself out of the running and Fitzgerald said "we make no allegation" that Obama was aware of Blagojevich's attempt to leverage the appointment.
Fitzgerald quoted a Blagojevich conversation in which the governor said the Senate seat is "a bleeping valuable thing. You just don't give it away. ... I've got this thing, and it's bleeping golden."
Obama spoke briefly about the arrest today in Chicago. "Like the rest of the people of Illinois, I am saddened and sobered by the news that came out of the U.S. attorney's office today," Obama said. "But as this is an ongoing investigation involving the governor, I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on the issue at this time."
As reporters we being escorted from a brief photo opportunity following a nearly two hour meeting with Gore, reporters shouted questions about the matter at the president-elect. "I had no contact with the governor or his office and so I was not aware of what was happening. And as I said, it's a sad day for Illinois," Obama said.
Blagojevich also was alleged to be using a favors list, made up largely of individuals and firms that have state contracts or received taxpayer benefits, from which to conduct a $2.5 million fundraising drive before year's end when a new tougher law on campaign donations, prompted by the governor's voracious fundraising, would take effect.
Even Blagojevich's recently announced $1.8 billion plan for new interchanges and "green lanes" on the Illinois Tollway was subject to corruption, prosecutors alleged. The criminal complaint alleges Blagojevich expected an unnamed highway concrete contractor to raise a half-million dollars for his campaign fund in exchange for state money for the tollway project. "If they don't perform, [expletive] 'em," Blagojevich said, according to the complaint.
Blagojevich and Harris also allegedly conspired to demand the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial board members responsible for editorials critical of Blagojevich in exchange for state help with the sale of Wrigley Field, the Chicago Cubs baseball stadium owned by Tribune Co.
Fitzgerald thanked the Chicago Tribune, which had been reporting on the investigation, for honoring a rare request about eight weeks ago not to report on certain aspects of the investigation that he said could have been jeopardized.
Tribune Editor Gerould Kern said today that the newspaper delayed publishing some stories at the request of the U.S. attorney's office during the course of reporting on the accelerating investigation of Blagojevich.
"On occasion, prosecutors asked us to delay publication of stories, asserting that disclosure would jeopardize the criminal investigation," Kern said. "In isolated instances, we granted the requests, but other requests were refused."
Tribune reporters Ray Long, John Chase, Monique Garcia, David Heinzmann, Hal Dardick and Susan Kuczka contributed to this report.
Blagojevich arrested; Fitzgerald calls it a 'political corruption crime spree'
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