Obama, Staff No Improper Dealings With Ill. Gov.

President-elect Barack Obama and two of his advisers were interviewed by federal agents investigating corruption in the Illinois Governor's Office. Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich is accused of trying to cash in on his power to appoint Obama's successor in the U.S. Senate. An internal review of the Obama transition team finds nothing improper about contacts with Blagojevich.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. President-Elect Barack Obama is vacationing in Hawaii this week, but before he left he was interviewed by federal agents investigating corruption allegations against Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. This revelation is included in an internal report from the Obama transition office. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper has details.

DAVID SCHAPER: In announcing charges against Blagojevich December 9th, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago said the governor was looking for a cabinet appointment, ambassadorship, or a high-paying nonprofit job from the Obama administration in exchange for putting whomever the president-elect wanted in the Senate seat. But not only is there no evidence the Obama transition team knew what Blagojevich allegedly wanted, the transition staff says no one knew anything about a scheme by the governor.

Incoming White House council Greg Craig says only one person on the transition team had any contact with Blagojevich and his staff, that's Congressman Rahm Emanuel, the incoming White House chief of staff. He says Emanuel talked with Blagojevich once or twice and with the governor's chief staff four times, and neither of them asked Emanuel for any kind of deal for the Senate seat.

GREG CRAIG: He is very clear that there was no discussion of a seat in the cabinet, there was no discussion of a 501c4 or a private-sector position or any other personal benefit to the governor in exchange for the Senate appointment. He's very clear on that.

SCHAPER: Nevertheless, Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald asked that Craig delay releasing this internal report until yesterday after federal investigators had a chance to interview President-Elect Obama, his advisor Valerie Jarrett and Rahm Emanuel. Craig says the U.S. Attorney's office gave them the go-ahead to release this report, which he says reiterates what Barack Obama has been saying all along.

CRAIG: We are satisfied there was nothing inappropriate that took place here, either in terms of conversations, or communications, or contacts between transition officials and the governor's office.

SCHAPER: Transition lawyer Greg Craig says Emanuel only gave Blagojevich a list of names that the president-elect found qualified for this Senate seat. He then added a couple of additional names, but other than that Craig says neither Mr. Obama, nor Emanuel, nor anyone else expressed a preference for any one candidate. Craig's report does detail a conversation Jarrett had with the union official who suggested Blagojevich is interested in becoming Secretary of Health and Human Services, a suggestion both laughed off as ridiculous. But Craig says Jarrett had no idea Blagojevich might be using the Senate seat as a bargaining chip to get the cabinet post.

Craig's report also indicated that Barack Obama's close friend Dr. Eric Whitaker had also been approached by a deputy governor about the Senate seat, but again the reports says there was no suggestion that the governor wanted something for it. In fact, Craig says nobody within the Obama transition team had any idea Blagojevich was trying to cash in on his power to appoint Illinois' next U.S. senator.

CRAIG: No one in the Obama circle was aware of what was going on in the governor's office or the governor's mind until such time as he was arrested. They found out about what the governor was doing at the same time the rest of the American public found out about it.

SCHAPER: U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald seems to back up that claim. In the criminal complaint charging Blagojevich, the governor is quoted telling his chief of staff, in a conversation recorded by the FBI, that in exchange for the Senate seat, the Obama team wasn't, quote, "willing to give me anything except appreciation. Blank them." Blagojevich says he has done nothing wrong and will fight the charges.

Still the internal report may not silence those critics who believe the president-elect's transition team has not been forthcoming enough in telling what it knew about Blagojevich's alleged scheme to make some money off the Senate seat. But Len Cavise, a criminal law professor at DePaul University in Chicago says the report should be taken at face value. He says it would make no sense for the Obama team to be deceptive now.

LEN CAVISE: They had better admit some culpability if it's there because the chances are it's going to come out, and it may come out before a grand jury.

SCHAPER: Cavise notes the U.S. Attorney's investigation continued. And though their own internal report clears the transition team of wrongdoing, it still poses a distraction to the president-elect as he prepares to take office.

David Schaper, NPR New, Chicago.

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Obama Report: No Improper Contact With Ill. Gov

Analysis From 'Political Junkie'

President-elect Barack Obama's incoming chief of staff had conversations with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich about the vacant Illinois Senate seat, but no money or other benefit was discussed, according to an internal report prepared for Obama and released Tuesday.

The report, prepared by Obama lawyer Greg Craig, confirmed that Rahm Emanuel had conversations with Blagojevich and former Blagojevich aide John Harris, but it said no inappropriate conversations took place.

Federal prosecutors have said telephone calls intercepted by government wiretaps show Blagojevich attempted to trade an appointment to the seat vacated by Obama for political favors.

But Craig said no one on Obama's staff knew that Blagojevich was allegedly involved in such a scheme until prosecutors revealed details of a criminal investigation earlier this month. "No one in the Obama circle was aware of what was going on in the governor's office and the governor's mind," said Craig.

The president-elect, Emanuel and top Obama aide Valerie Jarrett were interviewed by the U.S. attorney's office in connection with the ongoing probe last week, Craig said.

Internal Review

Obama launched a review of the interoffice contacts after federal prosecutors arrested the governor on corruption charges.

According to the report, neither Obama nor any of his staff had conversations with Blagojevich or the governor's staff about the Senate vacancy. The report said that the president-elect discussed possible Senate candidates with Emanuel and David Axelrod, then asked Emanuel to relay the names to Blagojevich's office. The candidates included U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Jesse Jackson Jr., Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes and Illinois Veterans Affairs Director Tammy Duckworth.

Jarrett had been mentioned as a possible candidate, but she took her name out of consideration on Nov. 9 after deciding to accept a position in the White House.

Craig's internal review also revealed that Eric Whitaker, an Obama family friend, was contacted by Illinois Deputy Gov. Louanner Peters following the presidential election.

According to the report, Peters asked Whitaker who was authorized to speak for Obama on recommendations for the Senate seat, and Whitaker said he would find out. Whitaker later told Peters that Obama had said he did not want to "dictate the result of the selection process" directly or indirectly.

Biden Speaks Out

"It's been clear that the president-elect has had no contact with Blagojevich and/or anyone on his team; that he's asserted — and you'll soon find in the report being released today — that there has been no inappropriate contact by any member of the Obama staff or the transition team with Blagojevich," Vice President-elect Joe Biden said earlier Tuesday.

Obama, who is on a family vacation in Hawaii, said last week that the internal review found nothing wrong. He said the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago requested that the report's release be delayed until this week.

Prosecutors have said the president-elect was not implicated in any wrongdoing.

The prosecutors allege that phone calls intercepted by a government wiretap showed the governor was scheming to trade the Senate appointment for money, contributions or a lucrative job. Details of the conversations are outlined in the FBI affidavit that underlies the complaint and arrest warrants for Blagojevich and former Chief of Staff John Harris; however, the affidavit does not identify with whom the governor tried to cut deals.

Blagojevich Vows To Fight

Blagojevich, 52, has been under pressure to resign since he was arrested Dec. 9 on federal solicitation of bribery and conspiracy charges. Last week, the governor vigorously denied the allegations and vowed to fight to clear his name.

"I'm here to tell you right off the bat that I am not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing," he said. "I will fight until I take my last breath."

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has said Blagojevich embarked on a "political corruption crime spree," participating in a number of schemes to trade political favors for financial and political gain. Fitzgerald said Blagojevich wanted cash, campaign contributions, a Cabinet post or an ambassadorship in exchange for an appointment to the Senate.

Craig's report said Jarrett had a conversation with Tom Balanoff, head of the Illinois chapter of the Service Employees International Union, about Blagojevich's interest in being considered to head the Department of Health and Human Services. The report said Balanoff discounted the possibility of such an appointment, and Jarrett concurred.

State House Hears Testimony

Illinois law allows the governor to fill Obama's seat, but Senate Democrats have warned Blagojevich not to name a replacement.

Last week, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected a bid by the state attorney general's office to remove Blagojevich from office, but a committee in the Illinois House of Representatives is considering whether to recommend impeachment.

On Tuesday, Fitzgerald asked the committee not to interview people who might be part of the federal investigation.

"Any inquiry into these topics, as well as the taking of testimony from present and former members of the governor's staff, could significantly compromise the ongoing criminal investigation," Fitzgerald wrote in a response to the committee.

Committee members have agreed not to do anything to compromise the probe. Since they cannot question witnesses connected to the criminal charges, they are expected to wrap up their fact-finding efforts and give Blagojevich's attorney a chance to respond.

Republicans pushed for more answers. "Today is just a first step in this process," said Kevin Smith, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio. "Without seeing the transcripts and hearing the recordings, it's clear that plenty of questions weren't answered today."

The federal complaint charges Blagojevich and Harris with conspiracy to commit fraud; they are also charged with solicitation of bribery in connection with a deal involving the Illinois Finance Authority.

Blagojevich and Harris are accused of trying to pressure 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 the historic Chicago ballpark and was attempting to negotiate its sale to the Illinois Finance Authority.

Harris resigned his position on Blagojevich's staff.

From NPR and wire reports

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