- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich had no qualms about selling the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by President-elect Barack Obama; he just wanted to get a good price for it, according to an FBI affidavit unsealed Tuesday.

The seat is a “valuable thing. You just don’t give it away for nothing,” Mr. Blagojevich is quoted as saying on wiretap transcripts. If contenders for the seat “are not going to offer anything of value,” he continued, he “might just take it” for himself.

Mr. Blagojevich, 51, and his chief of staff, 46-year-old John Harris, were arrested Tuesday morning on federal corruption charges that included seeking bribes in exchange for an appointment to the vacant Senate seat.

Other charges accused the governor of trying to get the Chicago Tribune to fire opinion writers in exchange for state funding for the Tribune-owned Chicago Cubs. Authorities also accused the two men of fostering a pay-for-play system, in which state jobs and contracts were won by filling Mr. Blagojevich’s campaign coffers.

Robert Grant, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Chicago office, said he woke the governor with a 6 a.m. phone call informing him of a warrant for his arrest and told him that two agents were at his front door. The governor asked whether it was a joke, Mr. Grant said.

Mr. Blagojevich was released after a brief court appearance Tuesday afternoon. He is scheduled to return to court Jan. 14.

The governor’s attorney, Sheldon Sorosky, insisted Tuesday that Mr. Blagojevich would not resign, adding: “He didn’t do anything wrong. A lot of this is just politics.”

His office released a statement saying the “allegations do nothing to impact the services, duties or function of the state.”

“Governor Blagojevich has been arrested in the middle of what we can only describe as a political-corruption crime spree,” U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said during a late-morning news conference. “We acted to stop that crime spree.”

A federal prosecutor called Mr. Blagojevich’s eagerness to sell the seat the most “appalling” of the federal corruption charges leveled Tuesday against the Democratic governor and his top aide.

According to the affidavit prepared by FBI Agent Daniel W. Cain, the bureau began investigating Mr. Blagojevich in 2003, the year he took office from disgraced former Gov. George Ryan, who is serving a six-year prison sentence on a federal corruption conviction.

The investigation already has won convictions against people close to Mr. Blagojevich’s administration, including Tony Rezko, a convicted real estate developer who was Mr. Blagojevich’s principal fundraiser and also raised money for Mr. Obama. Rezko was and is now cooperating with federal authorities in the hopes of receiving a lesser sentence, according to court records.

Despite the connection with Rezko and the vacant Senate seat, federal authorities made clear Tuesday there are no allegations against Mr. Obama.

“There’s no reference in the complaint to any conversations involving the president-elect or indicating that the president-elect was aware of it,” Mr. Fitzgerald said during a news conference.

According to the affidavit, Mr. Blagojevich called the opportunity “golden” and began scheming before election day. He said he was hurting financially and “the immediate challenge is how to take some of the financial pressure off our family.”

In discussion with advisers, Mr. Blagojevich said he hoped to be named secretary of health and human services if he made a pick that pleased Mr. Obama. According to the affidavit, he suggested that Mr. Obama also could persuade billionaires such as Bill Gates or Warren Buffet to donate up to $15 million to start a nonprofit that Mr. Blagojevich could run.

He also speculated about high-paying jobs for his wife or himself and the possibility of his campaign receiving a large, upfront contribution from another Senate hopeful.

Barry Pollack, a white-collar defense attorney not involved in the case, warned that it could be difficult for prosecutors to prove that Mr. Blagojevich’s actions surrounding the Senate appointment surpassed typical political “horse trading” and became criminal.

“I think that [seat-selling] allegation was put in because it’s sensational and it says something about the way the governor operates,” Mr. Pollack said. “I think it’s a very difficult allegation to prove or prevail on if it was standing alone. … This allegation, while sensational, I think can be easily characterized by the defense as not being any more than that.”

Mr. Blagojevich has not appointed a replacement for Mr. Obama, who resigned Nov. 16. Despite the charges, Mr. Blagojevich, as governor, still has the authority to do so.

According to prosecutors, Mr. Blagojevich directed Mr. Harris to pressure an official from the Tribune Co., the parent company of the Chicago Tribune, to fire editorial writers who had been critical of Mr. Blagojevich and had called for his impeachment.

At the time, according to the affidavit, the company had explored the possibility of receiving state financing to help sell the Chicago Cubs. The deal would have seen the state take title to Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ home stadium, saving the Tribune Co. about $100 million in taxes. The Tribune Co. declared bankruptcy Monday.

Mr. Blagojevich purportedly directed Mr. Harris to tell a Tribune official that help wouldn’t be forthcoming without the firings.

The Tribune Co. released a statement saying no firings were made and no one from the company has ever tried to influence staffing or editorial decisions at the Chicago Tribune because of conversations with members of the governor’s administration.

While the investigation against Mr. Blagojevich has been ongoing for years, prosecutors said, it accelerated recently.

Agents initiated the wiretaps last month after learning Mr. Blagojevich had increased his corrupt fundraising practices before a new state ethics law takes effect Jan. 1. That law would significantly limit him in raising money from people and businesses doing business with the state, authorities say.

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