Illinois gov indictment holds up tradition

By MARCELLA KREITER, UPI Senior Editor-NewsTrack  |  Dec. 9, 2008 at 12:21 PM
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CHICAGO, Dec. 9 (UPI) -- The arrest Tuesday of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich marks another chapter in the state's corruption archives and the first time since the 1930s a sitting governor has been indicted.

A federal complaint accuses Blagojevich of essentially selling his administration. The latest straw, apparently, was an effort to wring campaign dollars out of whomever he was to appoint to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.

The timing of the charges also may have taken into consideration the short time left until the Republicans move out of the White House and the Democrats move in. Blagojevich is a Democrat.

The threat of arrest had been hanging over the governor for months, ever since his pal, Antoin "Tony" Rezko, was indicted for being the middleman in the so-called pay-to-play scheme that involved selling state jobs and contracts. Another sign indictment was imminent was the arrest of Bill Cellini, who was known as a mostly Republican fixer to state government insiders.

Since the 1960s only a few Illinois governors have left office unscathed -- a stunning testament to the level of corruption in the Land of Lincoln.

Earlier, there was Len Small, a Republican who served as governor from 1921 to 1929. He was indicted while still in office in a money-laundering scheme that dated to his time as state treasurer, but a hung jury kept him out of prison.

More recently the list of governor-felons begins with Democrat Otto Kerner, a former U.S. attorney who had long been out of the executive mansion and serving on the federal bench when he was convicted in a racetrack bribery scandal. Then came Democrat Dan Walker, who, after leaving office, forged signatures on loan applications.

The most recent occupant of the governor's chair before Blagojevich, George Ryan, is serving a 6 1/2-year federal prison sentence for a driver's license-buying scandal dating to his tenure as Illinois secretary of state. There were also rumors Ryan's predecessor, Jim Edgar, who had a squeaky-clean image, had agreed not to run again if the feds declined to file charges against him.

U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee who served federal time for his role in the House post office scandal, wasn't kidding when he called Illinois politics a blood sport.

For months, Blagojevich has proclaimed his innocence, despite being identified as "Public Official A" in the Rezko indictment.

As recently as Monday, the governor was grousing about the unfair treatment he was receiving, complaining about reports people with whom he had been talking were wired.

"It kind of smells like Nixon and Watergate," he told reporters. "But I don't care whether you tape me privately or publicly, I can tell you that whatever I say is always lawful."

The complaint, however, is damning.

"From in or about 2002 to the present, in Cook County, in the Northern District of Illinois, defendants did, conspire with each other and with others to devise and participate in a scheme to defraud the state of Illinois and the people of the state of Illinois of the honest services of Rod R. Blagojevich and John Harris (Blagojevich's chief of staff who also was arrested Tuesday), in furtherance of which the mails and interstate wire communications would be used in violation of U.S. laws," the first count reads.

The second count accuses Blagojevich of trying to pressure the Tribune Co. into firing certain members of its editorial board critical of the governor by interfering in the sale of Wrigley Field as part of the media empire's efforts to unload the Chicago Cubs.

An attached affidavit alleges Blagojevich was caught on wiretaps conspiring to sell Obama's Senate seat "for financial and other personal benefits for himself and his wife." He allegedly discussed a foundation or union salary for himself, putting his wife on corporate boards, promises of campaign funds, including an up-front, good-faith deposit, and a cabinet post or ambassadorship for himself.

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was stunned.

"The breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering," Fitzgerald said in a statement issued along with the indictment. "They allege that Blagojevich put a 'for sale' sign on the naming of a United States senator; involved himself personally in pay-to-play schemes with the urgency of a salesman meeting his annual sales target; and corruptly used his office in an effort to trample editorial voices of criticism. The citizens of Illinois deserve public officials who act solely in the public's interest, without putting a price tag on government appointments, contracts and decisions."

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