Blagojevich: Politics or Criminal Intent? The arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich raises the question: What separates the allegedly blatant selling of a Senate seat appointment from the usual political practice of quid pro quo?
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Blagojevich: Politics or Criminal Intent?

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich gestures from the back alley outside his Chicago home on Dec. 15. Blagojevich, who was arrested by FBI agents on corruption charges, has so far refused calls for him to resign from office. Tasos Katopdis/Getty Images hide caption

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Tasos Katopdis/Getty Images

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich gestures from the back alley outside his Chicago home on Dec. 15. Blagojevich, who was arrested by FBI agents on corruption charges, has so far refused calls for him to resign from office.

Tasos Katopdis/Getty Images

Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland (left) speaks about Operation NY Shield, a tristate security coalition, next to the then-New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey on March 20, 2003, in New York City. Rowland was convicted of bribery charges in 2004. Monika Graff/Getty Images hide caption

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Monika Graff/Getty Images

Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland (left) speaks about Operation NY Shield, a tristate security coalition, next to the then-New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey on March 20, 2003, in New York City. Rowland was convicted of bribery charges in 2004.

Monika Graff/Getty Images

The week-old saga of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his alleged plot to sell President-elect Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat has provided rich fodder for pundits and comic relief for a recession-weary public.

But, for some, it has also raised the question: What separates the pay-to-play scheme laid out in federal charges against Blagojevich from the back-scratching and favor-providing that has always fueled American politics?

On paper, the line might be bright. The Latin translation for quid pro quo, after all, is simply "something for something." In the Blagojevich case, that meant his alleged promise of a Senate appointment in exchange for money or jobs — or both.

In reality, however, it can get pretty confusing. Big donors frequently end up with ambassadorships — and lucrative government contracts — with no legal ramifications. And the durable system of rewarding supporters through political patronage has, over decades, managed to resist reform.

"Politicians exist and thrive on legitimate political contributions," says Connecticut defense lawyer Hugh Keefe. "But there has always been a vague line between those contributions and the point at which bribery and personal gain come into play."

Keefe should know. He represented Waterbury, Conn., Mayor Joseph Santopietro. It was Santopietro's arrest and conviction on bribery charges in the early 1990s that kicked off more than a decade of highly publicized public corruption cases in the Nutmeg State, culminating with the 2004 bribery conviction of Gov. John G. Rowland.

Connecticut, in fact, with its stream of indicted public officials — including one of Santopietro's successors in Waterbury and the mayor of Bridgeport, the state's largest city — appeared poised to compete with states like Illinois and Louisiana for the corruption crown.

Defense lawyer Hubert Santos represented former Connecticut State Treasurer Paul Silvester, convicted in 1999 of taking kickbacks for investing state pension money in particular equity firms. Santos says the constant blurring of boundaries between money and favor that marks the political process could play in Blagojevich's favor.

The governor's lawyers, Santos says, will have an opportunity to characterize their client's actions as simply business as usual.

"It's that fine line between the quid pro quo and the politics that they're drawing here," Santos says. And Blagojevich's sheer audaciousness may actually help him, the lawyer argues.

"They can always attempt to dismiss it as bravado — that he didn't really mean that," Santos says. He suggests a defense that acknowledges the governor's incriminating comments as captured on federal phone taps but makes a case that Blagojevich's grasping comments are taken out of context and that, bottom line, no money or favors had actually changed hands. (Federal law enforcement officials have said they acted quickly because they feared Blagojevich was on the verge of making a potentially tainted appointment.)

However, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, himself a former prosecutor, says that the Blagojevich case is pretty straightforward.

"These cases are sometimes difficult to prove because people are no longer as careless, reckless or stupid as they once were to do the explicit deal," he says. Either the promise of favor is unspoken, or the language used to describe potential future relationships typically avoids the suggestion of something for something.

But Blagojevich's conversations were "so brazen and bizarre that I think the prosecutors will have a very powerful and compelling case," Blumenthal says. "And juries are pretty smart these days. They've become very suspicious, and they are willing to believe the worst."

Especially about public officials.

So, a quick primer: When President Nixon solicited big campaign donations in exchange for promises of ambassadorships, that was determined to be quid pro quo and was stopped. But, now, when Sam Fox, who raised $200,000-plus for President Bush's re-election and donated $50,000 to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, gets appointed ambassador to Belgium, that's not quid pro quo because the deal wasn't explicit, the specific job not linked to donations. That's business as usual.

By contrast, Blagojevich was upfront about the price tag for Obama's Senate seat, much as Nixon and his aides were with their so-called ambassador auctions in the early 1970s. The timing is as important as the phrasing, as the voluble Gov. Blagojevich has no doubt learned.

"That will be part of the defense," Blumenthal predicts. "They'll argue that this is the way we do business — at the presidential level, they do it with ambassadorships. Here, the thing he had was a Senate seat."