Ill. Gov. Arrested In Probe Over Obama Successor

Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been arrested on charges that he conspired to get financial benefits through his ability to appoint the person to replace President-elect Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate. A 76-page FBI affidavit says the 51-year-old Democrat was intercepted on court-authorized wiretaps conspiring to sell or trade the vacant Senate seat for personal benefits.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The governor of Illinois is under arrest on federal charges. Governor Rod Blagojevich was taken into custody this morning at his Chicago home. His chief of staff is also under arrest. Charges against the governor include conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and solicitation of bribery. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is announcing the charges, and the two men are expected in federal court later today in Chicago. NPR's David Schaper joins us now to talk about this news. And David, the charges appear to include the governor's attempt to benefit financially from his position as governor to appoint a replacement for Barack Obama's Senate seat.

DAVID SCHAPER: That's right. The U.S. attorney in his statement already says the breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is just staggering. Now, Governor Blagojevich and his administration has been under investigation for quite some time. What's so shocking about that is that just within the last month, since Barack Obama was elected to the presidency, he's been apparently soliciting bribes, according to these charges laid out by the federal government today, for, you know, the people he might appoint to replace him in the U.S. Senate.

While this investigation is going on into other aspects of potential corruption, since he has the sole authority to appoint the person, the indictment suggests he was not just looking for cash, possibly, but appointments to boards, maybe a nonprofit or a union board or something like that, appointments for his wife to corporate boards, so that they would have some security, some income, should he be indicted or forced out of office or should he just not be re-elected in two years.

MONTAGNE: Well, isn't it sort of startling, especially from the outside, at sort of the boldness of it? Because even during this campaign that he now has some control over - you know, the results have affected him - it was known he was under investigation.

SCHAPER: And people in Illinois politics, and certainly President-elect Obama among them, have been trying to keep just way more than an arm's length away from the governor. They've been steering clear of him at public events, at charity functions, at political functions. So the fact that...

MONTAGNE: Well, tell us about the past charges that he was already looking at.

SCHAPER: Well, what's most notable is, I guess, Tony Resco, who was a member of his inner circle and also somebody who raised money for Barack Obama in some of his earlier campaigns, was convicted earlier this year of trading appointments to state boards and commissions and other key administration positions for campaign cash. And it was also part of this pay-to-play politics scheme that they've alleged - the federal government has alleged that the Blagojevich administration would be squeezing companies that wanted to do business with the state for big kickbacks, most notably those wanting the business of the state investment boards, like the state pension funds.

And the governor controlled the appointments to those boards and used Tony Resco and others within his inner circle to trade campaign contributions for appointments to those boards. And then they sought to get campaign contributions of those who would do business with those boards. But not just that, but cash for themselves as well.

MONTAGNE: Now, just briefly, I just said, you know, boldness. Well, of course, it's just alleged. These are charges. Nothing's been proved. But any sense yet of what these allegations mean for the appointment of a replacement to President-elect Obama's former Senate seat?

SCHAPER: It certainly casts a long, long shadow over whomever he appoints because apparently, he and members of his staff were reaching out to those he might appoint to see what they might get in return.

MONTAGNE: David, thanks very much.

SCHAPER: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's David Schaper speaking to us about charges being brought, federal charges, today against the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich.

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Illinois Governor Arrested On Corruption Charges

About Gov. Blagojevich

Rod Blagojevich was born Dec. 10, 1956, in Chicago. His father, Rade, originally came to the city from Yugoslavia following World War II and worked in a steel mill.

 

Rod Blagojevich grew up in the city's northwest side and attended public schools before enrolling in Northwestern University. He obtained his law degree from Pepperdine University in 1983.

 

His father-in-law is Richard Mell, a longtime alderman of Chicago's 33rd Ward and a force in Illinois state politics.

 

Political Career

 

Blagojevich began his career in public service as a lawyer in the state's attorney office, where he gained a reputation for prosecuting drunk driving and domestic abuse cases.

 

He entered politics in 1991 when he ran for a seat in the Illinois legislature and served for four years. In 1996, he was elected to the U.S. Congress.

 

Blagojevich became Illinois governor in 2003. He beat the Republican incumbent Gov. George Ryan, who is serving a six-year prison sentence after being convicted on racketeering and fraud charges for selling driver's licenses in exchange for bribes. Blagojevich was re-elected in 2006.

 

From NPR staff reports and the Associated Press

Who Is Patrick Fitzgerald?

The arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on corruption charges is the latest in a long list of high-profile cases for Patrick Fitzgerald. As the U.S. attorney from Chicago — and son of an Irish doorman — Fitzgerald has taken the lead on cases involving terrorism, organized crime and the Bush administration officials.

He helped prosecute cases involving the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania during his 13 years as an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan.

He investigated the question of who leaked of identity of CIA official Valerie Plame to a Chicago newspaper columnist. (In connection to that case, he prosecuted Dick Cheney's former chief-of-staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who later was convicted of lying to the FBI and to a federal grand jury about the matter).

Ironically, Fitzgerald also prosecuted Blagojevich's predecessor as Illinois governor: Republican George Ryan. Ryan is currently serving a six-year prison sentence for racketeering.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his top aide were arrested Tuesday on corruption charges following a federal investigation of the 51-year-old Democrat's administration.

Among the allegations: Blagojevich conspired to benefit financially from his role in appointing a U.S. senator to fill the vacancy left by Barack Obama's election as president.

In a criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday, Blagojevich and Chief of Staff John Harris, 46, were accused of conspiring to commit mail and wire fraud and influence-peddling in a deal involving the Chicago Tribune.

After a brief court appearance Tuesday afternoon, the governor was released on bail. Blagojevich, who has been under investigation since 2003, has denied wrongdoing.

'Sad Day' For Government

Chicago FBI chief Robert Grant said he woke the governor about 6 a.m. to tell him that two agents were at the door with a warrant for this arrest.

"This is a sad day for government," U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said at a news conference.

The complaint against Blagojevich and Harris alleges the two conspired to defraud the state of Illinois through the mail and telephone communications.

The pair also allegedly pressured the Tribune Co. to fire several members of the Chicago Tribune editorial board in exchange for state assistance in the purchase of Wrigley Field. The Tribune Co. owns Wrigley Field and was attempting to negotiate the sale of the historic Chicago ballpark to the Illinois Finance Authority.

Chicago Tribune editor Gerould Kern said Tuesday he was never pressured by Blagojevich or anyone from the Tribune Co. over any editorials, according to the newspaper.

"I never got a complaint. I never got any contact whatsoever from Blagojevich, no complaint — nothing from inside Tribune Co.," Kern is quoted as saying.

According to an FBI affidavit, agents intercepted a number of phone calls outlining illegal behavior when they tapped the telephones at Blagojevich's home and campaign office for 30 days beginning Oct. 22. Court documents state that Blagojevich and Harris engaged in numerous "pay-to-play" schemes involving millions of dollars.

A Senator's Job 'For Sale'?

"The breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering," Fitzgerald said. "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 FBI began investigating allegations of corruption in the Blagojevich administration in 2003, according to the affidavit used to obtain the criminal complaint and search warrants. The affidavit by the FBI agent Daniel Cain said Blagojevich began conspiring to profit from his office in 2002 and that the conspiracy continued through recent weeks.

It outlines numerous outrageous conversations involving Blagojevich — including that the governor conspired to sell or trade President-elect Obama's Senate seat for financial and personal benefits for Blagojevich and his wife.

Also included in the affidavit are allegations that:

— Blagojevich and Harris conspired with convicted political fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko, businessmen Stuart Levine and Ali Ata, and others to obtain financial benefits for himself and his family.

— Blagojevich discussed getting a salary from a non-profit organization or a labor union affiliate; putting his wife in paid positions on corporate boards for as much as $150,000 a year; campaign contributions; and an ambassadorship for himself.

— Blagojevich discussed using his authority to get an appointment to be the secretary of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration.

Previous Governor In Prison

Blagojevich replaced former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who is currently serving a 6 1/2-year prison sentence. Ryan, who was governor from 1999 to 2003, was convicted of corruption in 2006 for steering state contracts and leases to political insiders while he was Illinois secretary of state and governor.

Illinois Republican Party Chairman Andy McKenna called on Blagojevich to resign immediately.

McKenna said Blagojevich also must not appoint a U.S. senator "under this cloud of extremely serious allegations." The governor has the power to appoint Obama's replacement in the Senate.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin said the state's voters should decide who fills Obama's vacant Senate seat. "I think the Illinois general assembly should enact a law as quickly as possible calling for a special election to fill the Senate vacancy of Barack Obama," Durbin said. "No appointment by this governor under these circumstances could produce a credible replacement."

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