Filling Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat was supposed to be a dully procedural affair. Under Illinois law, Democratic Governor Rod “Blago” Blagojevich was to name the president-elect’s successor. That would have been the end of the matter. But a routine transfer of power this week became a showcase of its spectacular abuse, with Blagojevich’s Tuesday arrest following revelations that he had used his office to enrich himself and his allies; to strong-arm his critics; and, in a final act, to offer up Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder.
If the charges so graphically detailed in the FBI’s 76-page criminal complaint are accurate, Gov. Blagojevich presided over one of the largest corruption scandals in recent Illinois history. In a state where three former governors have been sent to prison in the past 35 years, and in which Blagojevich’s Republican predecessor, George Ryan, is serving out a six-and-a-half year prison term for fraud and racketeering, that is no mean achievement. But then, Blagojevich’s schemes to auction off Obama’s former office – and to secure in the process well-paid appointments for himself and his wife – are nothing if not audacious.
Blagojevich’s bid to cash in on Obama’s Senate seat has drawn the most media attention, and it’s easy to see why. FBI taps reveal him to be a perfect caricature of the corruption-steeped Chicago machine politician. In one excerpt cited in the FBI’s complaint, Blagojevich sensationally boasts of the Senate seat: “I’ve got this thing and it’s f-cking golden, and…I’m just not giving it up for f-ckin’ nothing.”
Indeed, Blagojevich demanded a high price. Although there is no evidence that Obama had knowledge of any such deal, Blagojevich apparently contemplated everything from an appointment Secretary of Health and Human Services or an ambassadorship in the Obama administration to a high-paying post with a union-connected non-profit called Change to Win, as suitable rewards for finding an appointment favorable to the president-elect. One advisor recommended that the governor set his sights on energy secretary, since that is the “one that makes the most money.” Absent adequate compensation, Blagojevich was more than ready to name himself Obama’s successor. “If I don’t get what I want,” he is recorded as saying, “and I’m not satisfied with it, then I’ll just take the Senate seat myself.”
It speaks to the abject ethical bankruptcy of his administration that the Senate seat was only the latest object of Blagojevich’s “pay-to-play” schemes. Earlier this year, for instance, Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, tried to bribe the Chicago Tribune to fire deputy editorial page editor John McCormick, a critic of the governor, as well as other editorial employees deemed hostile. In exchange for purging these “biased and unfair” journalists, Blagojevich promised to make it easier for the money-losing paper’s parent company, Tribune Co., to get financial assistance from the Illinois Finance Authority (IFA), a state agency. If the Tribune Co. wanted IFA financing, Blagojevich explained with typical tact, “our recommendation is fire all those f-cking people, get ‘em the fu-ck out of there and get us some editorial support.” Blagojevich’s wife Patricia was also keen on the idea, urging the paper to “just fire” unfriendly editorialists.
It wasn’t just big companies that Blagojevich squeezed for a gain. This October, Blagojevich allegedly threatened to withhold $8 million in funds for pediatric care to Chicago’s Children Memorial Hospital, unless he got $50,000 in campaign contributions from a hospital executive. Perhaps the only wonder is that the FBI found no evidence of the governor leaning on a local orphanage.
While the scale of the governor’s corruption is startling, more incredible still is the brazen unconcern with which he went about his crooked business. Not only did Blagojevich understand perfectly well that he was breaking the law, but he specifically devoted his efforts to preparing for the legal consequences that he seemed to consider inevitable. At one point, the FBI complaint notes, Blagojevich discussed plans to move money out of his political campaign fund to avoid having it frozen in the event of an indictment. Yet another precautionary tactic was to transfer the money to Blagojevich’s defense attorney, on the understanding that the attorney would return the money if it wasn’t needed.
Such methodical conspiring is all the more astonishing when one considers that the governor, as he was well aware, had been under investigation since at least 2005. Even after last spring’s trial of his top political fundraiser, real estate developer Antoin “Tony” Rezko, brought heightened scrutiny of influence peddling in the Blagojevich administration, the governor remained unfazed. As recently as this Monday, Blagojevich told reporters that he was not in the least concerned about reports of a corruption investigation, declaring, “I don’t believe there’s any cloud that hangs over me.”
The irony – and it is admittedly a small one, considering the state’s scandal-plagued history – is that Blagojevich was first elected in 2002 by promising ethics reform and pledging to end “business is as usual” in Illinois state politics. Instead, his dramatic downfall merely adds to the state’s reputation for corruption. A 2004 survey, for instance, judged Illinois the fifth most corrupt state in the country. It trailed only the likes of Louisiana, home of recently ousted Democratic Rep. William Jefferson, indicted for pocketing $500,000 in bribes, and Alaska, whose Republican senior Senator Ted Stevens was convicted on seven counts of corruption this October. The Blagojevich affair suggests that the state still belongs in that undistinguished company.
Then there are the national implications. Fairly or not, Blagojevich has cast a taint on the incoming Obama administration. To be sure, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has stressed that the federal case against Blagojevich makes no allegations of wrongdoing by Obama, while the governor himself was seemingly outraged with the administration’s refusal to buy him off. The FBI’s affidavit quotes him grumbling that “they’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation.” But there is still the pressing matter of what, if anything, Obama, who served as a top advisor to Blagojevich's 2002 gubernatorial campaign, knew of his corruption – a matter scarcely clarified by contradictory statements from Obama and his strategists about whether the president-elect had spoken to Blagojevich about the Senate vacancy.
It’s trite but true to say that Blagojevich is the kind of politician that makes people cynical about politics. His dismal 13 percent approval ratings prior to this week’s arrest are sufficient proof of that. But an appropriate antidote to such cynicism is the thought that Blagojevich, for all his leering contempt for the law, ultimately was not above it. As he gloried in playing kingmaker and profiteer, Blagojevich mused that a Senate seat “is a f-cking valuable thing, you just don’t give it away for nothing.” On this count, at least, the disgraced governor cannot be disappointed. He gave it away for everything.