Will Blagojevich Arrest Affect Obama?

President-elect Barack Obama comes from the same city and state as Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and it was the Obama seat in the Senate that Blagojevich is accused of trying to sell. Is it possible this scandal will leave the new president unsinged?

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

So a big question now: Will the problems of the Illinois governor affect the former junior senator from Illinois, President-elect Barack Obama? Today Mr. Obama held a news conference with former Vice President Al Gore to talk about climate change. But the president-elect also had this to say about the criminal complaint against Governor Blagojevich.

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: 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. Beyond that, I don't think it's appropriate to comment.

NORRIS: The new president has long lived in Chicago and he has known most of the players in this scandal. And what happens now to the vacancy of his Senate seat, that's another question. Joining us to wrestle with these issues is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. So Mara, first off, is there anything within the criminal complaint released today that would implicate the president-elect in any kind of wrongdoing?

MARA LIASSON: No, there's not. And the prosecutor said so repeatedly today. This is not like Whitewater, which was that scandal from Arkansas that followed the Clintons into office. They had a direct role in some of that. So far, we see nothing connecting Obama to any of these actions. Today one of Obama's top campaign officials said he doesn't expect this to affect the president-elect at all. Although the Obama transition officials are not saying much about this, they truly don't seem worried about it. Although, Republicans, of course, did immediately issue a press release painting Obama and Blagojevich as political allies. I guess you could say technically they have been allied on issues, but they were not close.

NORRIS: Now, in looking through the transcripts of the criminal complaint, there's a suggestion that members of the Obama team were invited to play and to pay, or to pay and to play, but refused.

LIASSON: Yes, one candidate for the job who's clearly associated with Obama - we assume it's Valerie Jarrett - clearly refused to offer anything in return. And Blagojevich was angry about it. He even - he referred to Obama on these tapes as an - expletive deleted. And in the charges it says that Blagojevich said he knew Obama wanted Senate candidate number one, who we assume is Valerie Jarrett, for this open seat. But, quote, "They're not willing to give me anything except appreciation, so - expletive deleted - them." Now Obama couldn't pay for that kind of exoneration right from the prosecutor.

NORRIS: Now there's much that we don't know, but would it be going too far to speculate that a member of the Obama team might have been a source for some of this information for the prosecutor in this case?

LIASSON: I think it's really too soon to tell. I suppose if anybody was solicited for a bribe, they should have reported it. But we certainly don't know that.

NORRIS: Do we know who the other four candidates are discussed in this indictment? You mentioned candidate one.

LIASSON: We don't know that. This is all speculation. We can't say who candidates one through five are, particularly number five who's the one who seems to be saying that he's going to come up with half a million dollars for the government - governor. We do know some of the names that were being talked about: Emil Jones, who is an African-American state Senate president from Illinois. He was Obama's mentor there. He's 73 years old; Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky; Jessie Jackson Jr., another congressman from Chicago; also Tammy Duckworth, who was the head of the Veteran Affairs.

NORRIS: And what happens to the Senate seat now?

LIASSON: Well, we don't know yet. Now, Blagojevich does have the power to appoint someone. The lieutenant governor, Pat Quinn, is calling for Blagojevich to step aside. That would mean that he would then appoint the successor or he could call for a special election, which is what senior Illinois Senator Dick Durbin is asking to happen.

NORRIS: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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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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