19-Count Indictment Against Blagojevich, 5 Others
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Back when he was being impeached Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich argued that no one had charged him with a crime yet. Now that little oversight has been corrected. A federal grand jury in Chicago has issued an indictment. Blagojevich is charged with 16 felonies and his brother and four other members of the former governor's inner circle also face charges. NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago.
DAVID SCHAPER: Back in December, federal prosecutors charged Rod Blagojevich with allegedly plotting to auction off the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama to the highest bidder. According to the indictment handed up late Thursday that was just the tip of the iceberg, the culmination of years of pay-to-play politics in Illinois under the former Democratic governor.
The 16 felony counts against Blagojevich include wire fraud, mail fraud, racketeering, conspiracy, extortion and lying to federal agents. And in the sweeping 19-count indictment the federal government alleges Blagojevich and the circle of his closest friends and advisors started scheming to use the governor's office to enrich themselves, even before Blagojevich was elected in 2002.
Dave Lundy is with the Chicago-based non-profit the Better Government Association.
Mr. DAVE LUNDY (Better Government Association): The indictment lays out a fairly complex scheme in which Governor Blagojevich and his associates, from very early on, recognized that it wasn't just the Senate seat that was bleeping golden, but the governorship itself. And they set out to try to sell it and to enrich themselves in numerous ways.
SCHAPER: The charges allege Blagojevich and his coconspirators plotted to shake down state contractors, hospitals, anyone wanting business from the state, even other politicians, for cash kickbacks and campaign contributions.
In one new alleged scheme, Blagojevich and his associates agreed to refinance billions in state pension obligation bonds with a company whose lobbyist agreed to kickback hundreds of thousands of dollars to Blagojevich insider Tony Rezko, who is named but not charged in the indictment. Rezko, who was convicted of corruption charges last summer, allegedly agreed to later split up and distribute the proceeds of this and other schemes.
In another instance, Blagojevich allegedly withheld a $2 million state grant for a charter school in the district of a Chicago congressman until the brother of the congressman would hold a fundraiser for him. The congressman, reportedly now White House Chief of State Rahm Emanuel and his brother, did not go along and the school eventually did receive some of the grant.
Mr. LUNDY: You know, Governor Blagojevich came to office crusading against the corruption of the Ryan years.
SCHAPER: The Better Government Association's Dave Lundy points out that Blagojevich's predecessor, former Republican Governor George Ryan, is now serving a six and a half year prison sentence for corruption.
Mr. LUNDY: And yet what he apparently did, according to this indictment, is so much broader and greater, and so much more naked than what Governor Ryan did.
Ms. CINDY CANARY (Executive director, Illinois Campaign for Political Reform): I find this indictment completely repulsive.
SCHAPER: Cindy Canary is executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
Ms. CANARY: He was basically negotiating reforms during the day and planning the shakedowns at night.
SCHAPER: Blagojevich's wife Patty is mentioned throughout the indictment as an alleged beneficiary of some of the schemes, but she is not charged. Prosecutors say the investigation continues. And lawyers familiar with the case expect there are still more charges to come. The Blagojevich family is vacationing at Walt Disney World in Florida.
In a statement, Blagojevich says he is saddened and hurt but not surprised by the indictment. Blagojevich maintains he is innocent and, he adds, he will fight in the courts to clear his name.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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