Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, a scandal-plagued Democrat who among other things was preparing to appoint a senatorial successor to President-elect Barack Obama, was arrested Tuesday by FBI agents on what can only be described as breathtaking charges of corruption.
Needless to say, this is more than just another bust of another allegedly crooked governor of a state that has sent a good many of chief executives to prison — including Blagojevich’s predecessor, Republican George Ryan.
What are the ramifications?
First off, Obama is going to face questions about Blagojevich, a fellow Chicago pol with whom the president elect served in the Illinois statehouse during the period from 2003 to 2005 when Blagojevich was governor and Obama was a state senator. The president-elect is not saying much beyond a standard “it’s a sad day for Illinois” lamentation.
Obama would appear to be on pretty solid ground, as he was never particularly close to the governor. But the right-wing echo chamber will go wild about the fact that the two were in the same room with one another dozens of times and knew hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the same people — including unsavory characters such as Chicago fixer Tony Rezko.
Intriguingly, one of the charges against Blagojevich is that he demanded appointment for himself as Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration — apparently in return for appointing a senator who would be to the president-elect’s liking. That raises the prospect that either Obama or members of his transition team may have cooperated into the federal investigation of the governor’s activities. Certainly, Obama fans will hope this turns out to have been the case.
What is clear from the transcripts of tapes contained in the 76-page indictment is that Blagojevich was not satisfied with the response from the Obama team. The governor was overheard saying of the transition team: “they’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation. F**k them.”
At another point, the Blagojevich used the same epithet with regard to Obama himself.
It appears that the governor sought various and sundry benefits for himself, his wife and his campaign in return for Obama’s seat. Blagojevich is quoted as saying that a Senate seat “is a f**king valuable thing, you just don’t give it away for nothing.”
Reflecting on the governor’s actions and statements, US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald declared, “The breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering. They allege that Blagojevich put a ‘for sale’ sign on the naming of a United States senator…”
One of the allegations is that the governor offered to appoint a favorite of organized labor in return for a top-level union job.
And it just gets uglier.
As Fitzgerald says, “(Blagojevich) 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.”
That final reference is to an alleged scheme by the governor and his chief of staff to demand the firing of editors of the Chicago Tribune — a newspaper that has long been critical of Blagojevich — in return for state aid for the financially-troubled Tribune Company’s sale of Chicago’s Wrigley Field.
What emerges is a picture of a governor gone wild — up to and including scheming to shakedown billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates — and the FBI reportedly has the tapes to prove it.
The question, of course, is who if anyone will go down with the governor.
In addition to Obama, many Illinois politicians with national reputations are going to be facing questions about their relationships with Blagojevich.
Included on the list will be Illinois US House members Danny Davis, Jesse Jackson Jr. and Jan Schakowsky, all of whom served in the House with Blagojevich before he became governor and all of whom have been angling for appointment to Obama’s seat. Jackson, for instance, met with Blagojevich on Monday.
If Jackson was cooperating with the investigation, he could come out as a hero, and perhaps a senator. Certainly, there will be speculation about that prospect because of the timing of the arrests of Blagojevich and his chief of staff Tuesday morning.
Any pol who spoke with Blagojevich will likely be on those FBI tapes, and if conversations took a corrupt turn then the investigation could spread far beyond the governor’s office.
Perhaps the most intriguing twist in the whole sordid tale is this: Blagojevich’s arrest makes it likely that someone else will be appointing the next senator from Illinois.
If the governor is forced to resign — or is impeached — his office would go to Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, a veteran reformer and rabble-rouser who has often, although not always, been at odds with Blagojevich. (In fact, Quinn’s record over the past several decades has been one of battling the the Illinois political and corporate establishment. He won the nomination for his current post by upsetting the candidate of Blagojevich and the Democratic machine.)
As word of the federal investigation of Blagojevich and his aides spread in recent weeks, Quinn was outspoken in demanding that the governor “come forward and level with the people of Illinois.”
Frankly, if Quinn is empowered to select Obama’s successor, both Illinois and the Senate will be better served. Of course, a special election would be an even better option — and that democratic route seems to have been opened at the encouragement of Illinois Senator Dick Durbin.
That’s the bottom line: No one should mourn for Blagojevich.
Rather, we should be interested in answering all the questions about corruption in Illinois and about when and if Pat Quinn will be in a position now merely to send a new senator to Washington — or to arrange a special election — but to begin cleaning up the mess in Springfield.