We all knew Gov. Rod Blagojevich was under a federal investigation, but nobody expected developments as dramatic as what happened today. FBI agents arrested Democratic Gov. Blagojevich at his home this morning, at the direction of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald—the same man who brought down his predecessor, Republican Gov. George Ryan.
(Chicago is famous for its political corruption, but the state of Illinois as a whole is really no better, and it has always been bipartisan. In fact, this was our fourth governor out of five to be indicted, and if he’s convicted—not something to bet against—he’ll be the third out of five.)
Fitzgerald is emerging as the incorruptible prosecutor of the century, “a modern-day Elliot Ness“: alongside his gubernatorial investigations he’s made time to convict Scooter Libby in the Valerie Plame case, not to mention former Sun-Times owner Conrad Black, and he’s also looked into the Daley administration. In fact, Blago’s Chief of Staff John Harris (also arrested today) spent nine years working for Daley, and his nose was none too clean then either; Daley and the rest of City Hall’s fifth floor must be feeling a little nervous themselves at this point.
What’s different here, and surprising, is that the hammer’s coming down when Blago is still in office. What’s downright amazing is that Blago knew he was under investigation; indeed his former associate Tony Rezko had already been convicted and his own aide Ali Ata had rolled over on him; yet—with a new, stricter state ethics law going into effect on January 1—Blago actually increased his efforts to squeeze money out of his official powers. Apparently it was beyond his imagination that the feds might wiretap his phones, as in fact they did these past two months.
As recently as yesterday, after the news broke that he’d been recorded, Blago insisted to the Tribune that his discussions were “always lawful.” But we’re not talking about minor missteps or subtle, arguable violations here. We’re talking about shaking down a children’s hospital for kickbacks, under threat of revoking state funding. We’re talking about trying to get the Trib to fire members of its own editorial board who’d been critical of Blago, in return for state assistance selling Wrigley Field. Most shockingly, we’re talking about blatant attempts to auction off Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat—”a fucking valuable thing,” in Blago’s words—to the highest bidder. It really was, as Fitzgerald called it, “a political corruption crime spree.”
(Obama himself comes out of this looking pretty good, by the way… although that doesn’t stop some media commentators from claiming that this may “haunt” him. According to the FBI’s 76-page affidavit (.pdf) released this morning, Obama’s people refused to “pay to play” in order to get the president-elect’s preferred candidate—almost certainly Valerie Jarrett—appointed, leading Blago to castigate him in no uncertain terms, refusing to give “this motherfucker his Senator. Fuck him. For nothing? Fuck him.” Fitzgerald made clear that nothing in the affidavit implicates Obama himself, nor necessarily any of the other unnamed parties Blago tried to extort. In fact, there are rumors spreading that Rahm Emanuel himself dropped a dime on Blago about these discussions.
(Incidentally, that excerpt was entirely typical; there’s hardly a quote in the affidavit that Fitzgerald wasn’t forced to redact with numerous “bleeps” during his statement at the press conference. It’s practically Nixonian.)
So where does this leave the state of Illinois? Blago may be crooked as a three-dollar bill, but for the moment he’s still in power, the only one who can sign legislation. Prosecutions don’t move quickly, and in the meantime the state’s budget is still (to put it charitably) up in the air, among other serious policy problems.
And what of that Senate seat? Who could credibly accept an appointment made by Blago at this point? (The public scrutiny would be tremendous—the affidavit’s “Senate Candidate 5,” for instance, who The Atlantic‘s Marc Ambinder suggests is Jesse Jackson Jr. but The Smoking Gun believes is Emil Jones, was apparently willing to cut a deal. There’s much speculation about the other unnamed contenders, too.)
Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn (a longtime political gadfly who has never been close to the governor) says that Blago should step down, to let Quinn make the appointment and get other public business done… but that seems unlikely from a man this self-obsessed, one who seemed convinced that he could “parachute” himself into the Senate seat if no one else ponied up sufficiently, and that if he could only get past the threat of impeachment from the Illinois state house (oh, and his 13% public approval rating), he could run for president (!) in 2016. Sen. Dick Durbin has proposed that the state legislature act quickly to change the law and schedule a special election, instead… and that’s a likelier possibility, even though it would take veto-proof majorities; State Senate president Emil Jones (who is retiring at the end of this term, and was himself a dark-horse possibility for the Senate seat) has already said he’ll call his chamber into special session. (That option brings political risks, of course: if the seat remains open for longer than expected, or worse yet gets filled by a Republican, it could make Obama’s legislative proposals harder to pass in Washington.)
That impeachment, meanwhile, may be closer on the horizon than either a criminal conviction or a special election at this point; House Speaker Mike Madigan (also not a friend of Blago) has every excuse in the world now to call his chamber back to get it done, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky is openly pushing for it.
At this point, though, everything is speculation. With Illinois in the spotlight like never before, it’s international news, developing literally faster than I can write about it. It’s also a political clusterfuck of massive proportions, and no one’s really sure quite what’s going to happen next. Still, I have to give Fitzgerald credit for acting when he did and bringing all this to light, rather than waiting until after the fact to bring an airtight case for offenses that had already been committed.
And if it actually helps nudge Illinois a little bit closer to open, honest politics… well, that would be a first.Tags: Blagojevich, Chicago, Illinois, Obama, Patrick Fitzgerald, Rahm Emanuel