Obama's Conduct Not Questioned In Illinois Scandal

Top Illinois lawmakers say they'd like to call the legislature into session for a special election to pick President-elect Barack Obama's Senate replacement. They don't want to leave that job to Gov. Rod Blagojevich who's accused by federal prosecutors of trying to sell the seat. The governor and the president-elect are not personally close, but they have worked closely together over the years.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. For the better part of two years, a politician from Illinois named Barack Obama has been the biggest story going. But yesterday it was another Illinois official who was suddenly in the spotlight. Governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, was arrested, as you might have heard, by federal authorities at his Chicago home. He's accused of trying to get cash payments and other favors in exchange for an appointment to fill the U.S. Senate seat just vacated by the president-elect. The U.S. Attorney says Blagojevich even tried to cut a deal with aides to Obama, only to be rebuffed. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: According to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the Illinois governor wanted to get the best deal possible for himself in choosing someone to finish Mr. Obama's term in the Senate. It was kind of an auction with Blagojevich seeking offers of cash, campaign contributions, or jobs for his wife or for himself. The criminal complaint says Blagojevich believed that Obama had someone he wanted to see get the appointment. In the complaint, that person is called Senate candidate number one, and she's believed to be Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, who has since been named to a top White House job. Here's Patrick Fitzgerald.

Mr. PATRICK FITZGERALD (U.S. Attorney, Northern District of Illinois): I should make clear that the complaint makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever, his conduct. This part of the scheme lost steam when the person that the governor thought was the president-elect's choice of senator took herself out of the running.

GONYEA: When the Obama transition team refused to play along, Fitzgerald says the tape recordings captured Blagojevich's reaction.

Mr. FITZGERALD: This is the governor's reaction. Quote, "They're not willing to give me anything but appreciation. Bleep them." Close quote. And again the bleep is a redaction.

GONYEA: Obama does have considerable history with Blagojevich, having advised him in his first run for governor in 2002 when Obama was working his way up the political ladder. Obama endorsed the governor for re-election in 2006. In recent years the governor and Mr. Obama were often photographed together, but were not considered close allies. Yesterday in Chicago, President-elect Obama held a photo opportunity with former Vice President Al Gore. He'd hoped to talk about the environment, but was forced to weigh in on the topic of the day.

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: I'll just answer this one question. I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so we were not - 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. OK.

GONYEA: But that brief ad-libbed answer raised questions because Obama adviser David Axelrod said just over two weeks ago that the president-elect had indeed had contact with Blagojevich. This is from the local Fox News affiliate in Chicago. It aired late last month.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Mr. DAVID AXELROD (Democratic Political Consultant): I know he's talked to the governor and, you know, he's - there are a whole range of names, many of which have surfaced. And he's - I think he has a fondness for a lot of them.

GONYEA: But last night, Axelrod issued a statement saying he was mistaken then, and that no such discussions between the president-elect and Blagojevich ever took place. An Obama aide says the scandal will have no effect on the transition. Still, it has been an unwelcome distraction, to say the least. And it's not going to go away anytime soon. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: NPR political editor Ken Rudin writes about what's next for the Illinois governor and how the Obama Senate seat gets filled on his blog, "Political Junkie." You can find it at npr.org/junkie.

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Obama Distances Himself From Blagojevich Scandal

Analysis From The 'Political Junkie' Blog

The Republican National Committee was quick to link President-elect Barack Obama to the alleged misdeeds of Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who has been charged with conspiring to sell Obama's U.S. Senate seat for favors ranging from money to jobs.

But as details of the charges against Blagojevich emerged Tuesday, it increasingly appeared that the president-elect may have passed an early and very public ethics test.

Excerpts of conversations secretly taped by federal investigators captured the governor repeatedly and profanely denouncing Obama, and bitterly complaining that the president-elect or members of his team were offering only "appreciation" for consideration of their preferred Senate candidate.

That candidate, referred to in the charges as "Candidate 1," is believed to be longtime Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, who since has been named a senior White House adviser in the incoming administration.

"This is Illinois politics at its finest, but right now it isn't about Obama – other than the fact that he came out of Illinois politics," says longtime GOP strategist Ed Rollins. "The mere fact that he was not willing to deal is a plus. He didn't push it beyond recommending her, and he wasn't about to play ball."

However, the reality that the two men emerged from the same rough-and-tumble political machine and had many political associates in common has given Republicans fodder.

After Obama, in a brief appearance in Chicago, said he was "saddened and sobered by the news that came out of the U.S. attorney's office today," RNC Chairman Mike Duncan characterized the comments as "insufficient at best." Duncan, in a prepared statement, said that given Obama's "history of supporting and advising" Blagojevich, he should have said more.

The president-elect also said Tuesday that it would not be appropriate to comment on an ongoing investigation, and that he had not been in contact with the governor or his office. That answer raised some eyebrows in light of an interview that Obama's senior campaign adviser, David Axelrod, gave two weeks ago to the local Fox News affiliate in Chicago. Axelrod told an interviewer then, "I know he's talked to the governor, and there are a whole range of names many of which have surfaced." On Tuesday night, Axelrod issued a statement saying he was mistaken, and that no such discussions had occurred between the president-elect and Blagojevich.

When he announced the charges against Blagojevich, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said Obama was in no way implicated.

Obama advised and endorsed Blagojevich in 2002 and 2006, and his new White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, also advised the governor during his first run. Blagojevich is a former client of Axelrod; the two men worked together prior to Blagojevich's gubernatorial runs.

Both Obama and Blagojevich used Chicago real estate developer Antoin Rezko as a fundraiser. Obama, who also enlisted Rezko's help in a house deal, broke with him after the developer was charged with corruption. He was found guilty earlier this year.

The RNC has been pushing a Democrats-are-corrupt message that now features Blagojevich, as well as just-defeated Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson, under indictment on corruption charges, and New York Rep. Charlie Rangel, the subject of a House Ethics Committee investigation.

When asked whether the Blagojevich scandal had the potential to taint Obama in any way going forward, however, presidential historian Robert Dallek, called the question "scurrilous."

"It's a non-issue, so why raise it?" he said. "These things are sui generis. I can't remember any incident where a president-elect was called out because of some former associate."

Appointments to open elective seats are often fraught, says Shannon Stimson, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.

"It's not at all unusual that there be some negotiation within or even among parties," she says. "It suggests the problematic nature in general of democratic politics when it turns to appointments like these."

"But I don't see anything right now that reflects negatively on Obama," Stimson says. "It has more of an effect on the Democratic Party – if there's a special election, it would remove the possibility of a secure Democratic seat." Absolutely secure, anyway: Democrats in recent years have dominated statewide elections, largely because of Republican corruption.

At the end of the day, residents of Illinois should be disgusted, Rollins says, but it appears that the "president-elect was no part of the governor's operation." The "verbiage and conversations" recorded by investigators, he says, "stand for themselves."

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