Ill. Governor Arrested On Corruption Charges

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been arrested on charges of plotting to sell an appointment to Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat. Prosecutors say Blagojevich, a Democrat, was heard telling associates the Senate appointment is "a valuable thing — you just don't give it away for nothing."

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Today's accusations against Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich were stunning in their breadth as federal prosecutors revealed evidence from a corruption probe. Patrick Fitzgerald is the U.S. attorney for the northern district of Illinois.

Mr. PATRICK FITZGERALD (U.S. Attorney, Northern District of Illinois): The most cynical behavior of all this, the most appalling, is the fact that Governor Blagojevich tried to sell the appointment to the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Obama. The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave.

SIEGEL: Blagojevich is not the first Illinois governor to face federal charges, and the scandal casts a shadow over the process of choosing a replacement to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat. More on that in a few minutes. First, NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago on the criminal complaint.

DAVID SCHAPER: Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich was in the middle of what Patrick Fitzgerald says can only be described as a political crime spree.

Mr. FITZGERALD: This is a sad day for government. It's a very sad day for Illinois government. Governor Blagojevich has taken us to a truly new low.

SCHAPER: Blagojevich was awakened before dawn this morning and arrested at his North Side Chicago home, led away in handcuffs by FBI agents. Blagojevich and his administration have been under federal investigation for several years. Some key members of his inner circle are already behind bars for engaging in what federal prosecutors call a pay-to-play scheme in which companies wanting to do business with the state were shaken down for campaign contributions and cash kickbacks. Because of that probe, Illinois lawmakers passed a bill banning campaign contributions from those doing business with the state, which will take effect in January. Again, Patrick Fitzgerald.

Mr. FITZGERALD: You might have thought in that environment that pay-to-play would slow down. The opposite happened. It sped up.

SCHAPER: With the governor ramping up, Fitzgerald says investigators were able to wiretap the governor's home phone and bug his office, catching brazen acts of corruption on tape, like him trying to get $100,000 out of a billion dollar tollway contractor, $100,000 for him to sign a gambling bill, and $50,000 from the head of a children's hospital for an $8 million state grant. When that check didn't come in, Fitzgerald says Blagojevich tried to pull back the grant. And as the financially troubled Tribune Company was looking for state financial assistance for the sale of Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team which Tribune owns, Fitzgerald says the governor tried to force The Chicago Tribune to fire certain editorial writers for what he considered biased coverage against him.

Mr. FITZGERALD: In the governor's words, quote, "Fire all those bleeping people. Get them the bleep out of there. And get us some editorial support," close quote. And the bleeps are not really bleeps.

SCHAPER: But the most appalling, most shocking examples of corruption, according to Fitzgerald, came after fellow Illinois Democrat Barack Obama won the presidential election last month and Blagojevich became the sole person who would appoint Obama's replacement in the U.S. Senate.

Mr. FITZGERALD: The governor's own words describing the Senate seat: quote, "It's a bleeping valuable thing. You just don't give it away for nothing," close quote. Another quote: "I've got this thing, and it's bleeping golden. I'm just not giving it up for bleeping nothing."

SCHAPER: In exchange for putting in a person Mr. Obama favored for the post, Fitzgerald says Blagojevich tried to work out a deal in which he would get a high-paying job with the Service Employees International Union in its Change to Win campaign. And he allegedly also tried to get lucrative appointments to corporate boards for his wife and other jobs for himself, along with plain old cash from others seeking the Senate seat.

Fitzgerald says there is no evidence President-elect Obama knew anything about the scheme, nor is anyone in his office accused of doing anything wrong. The governor appeared in court this afternoon, and a federal judge ordered him released on his own recognizance. He would not comment to reporters as he left the Dirksen Federal Building, downtown Chicago. But just yesterday Blagojevich did comment on reports that he had been secretly recorded by federal agents.

Governor ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Democrat, Illinois): I don't care whether you tape me privately or publicly, I can tell you that whatever I say is always lawful...

SCHAPER: Illinois politicians in both parties are calling on the governor to resign. Some legislators say that if he doesn't, they will start impeachment proceedings. And the Illinois General Assembly may hold a special session to set a special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Obama. But as of now, Governor Blagojevich still has that sole authority. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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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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