Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Federal prosecutors have interviewed President-elect Barack Obama and two advisers during the corruption investigation of Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, the incoming administration disclosed Tuesday as it released an internal review that concluded a top aide tried to influence the selection of Mr. Obama’s Senate replacement but did not violate any laws.

Rahm Emanuel, the president-elect’s pick to be White House chief of staff, had at least four conversations with Mr. Blagojevich’s chief of staff, during which he offered the names of Senate replacements that would be acceptable to Mr. Obama and had one or two contacts directly with the governor, the internal review found. Mr. Emanuel, however, did not offer any favors or otherwise engage in the so-called “pay-to-play” scheme that federal prosecutors allege is at the heart of the criminal case filed earlier this month against the Illinois governor, the report concluded.

“We are satisfied there was nothing inappropriate that took place here,” said incoming White House Counsel Greg Craig, the lawyer Mr. Obama tapped to look into the contacts with Mr. Blagojevich.

Since Mr. Blagojevich was arrested earlier this month on federal charges he tried to sell the vacant Senate seat, the Obama team has faced questions about what, if anything, it did to influence the decision to name a successor to Mr. Obama in the Senate. The release of the report was designed to answer questions and clear the incoming administration of any wrongdoing, but also injected the political specter of an incoming president being interviewed by federal authorities in a Chicago corruption investigation shortly before taking the oath of office.

Mr. Obama, Mr. Emanuel and another top Obama aide, Valerie Jarrett, were each interviewed last week by authorities, Mr. Craig said. Mr. Craig said his report was done last week, but was held at the request of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who wanted to interview the Obama team.

Mr. Craig’s report said a close friend of Mr. Obama’s, Eric Whitaker, was approached by a deputy governor who wanted to know who was authorized to speak for Mr. Obama about the Senate seat. According to Mr. Craig, Mr. Whitaker, after talking with Mr. Obama, relayed that no one was authorized to speak on the president-elect’s behalf.

Mr. Fitzgerald has said Mr. Obama is not under investigation for wrongdoing, and the president-elect has never been particularly close to Mr. Blagojevich. But the charges against the governor of his home state, and the allegations concerning Mr. Obama’s old Senate seat, have distracted attention from Mr. Obama’s transition.

Mr. Obama was vacationing with his family Tuesday in Hawaii, where he attended his late grandmother’s memorial service. Mr. Emanuel was in Africa on vacation.

Republicans said they still want to see more information come out.

“While Obama certainly deserves some credit for releasing his team’s contacts with Governor Blagojevich, it remains unfortunate he acted only after political pressure was exerted. Hopefully, President-elect Obama’s promises of transparency related to this matter will extend to all communications, including written,” said Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant.

Mr. Craig told reporters the transition team does not have tapes or transcripts of wiretapped phone calls the FBI used to build a case against Mr. Blagojevich.

He said Mr. Emanuel reported “one or two” calls with Mr. Blagojevich and four more with Mr. Harris, the governor’s chief of staff, concerning both the vacant Senate seat and the House seat Mr. Emanuel will leave when he becomes chief of staff.

“There was no discussion of a Cabinet position, of [a nonprofit position], of a private-sector position or of any other personal benefit to the governor in exchange for the Senate appointment,” Mr. Craig said in his report.

The Associated Press reported that investigators played for Mr. Emanuel a tape recording of one of his phone calls with the governor’s office.

The Obama transition report said Ms. Jarrett and top Obama political adviser David Axelrod did not have inappropriate contacts with the governor’s office, though it does recount a conversation Ms. Jarrett had with a top union official, who asked whether Mr. Blagojevich could be named to a Cabinet position. The official was Tom Balanoff, president of Chicago-based Service Employees International Union Local 1.

“Ms. Jarrett recalls that Mr. Balanoff also told her that the governor had raised with him the question of whether the governor might be considered as a possible candidate to head up the Department of Health and Human Services in the new administration. Mr. Balanoff told Ms. Jarrett that he told the governor that it would never happen. Jarrett concurred,” the report says.

Mr. Craig said Ms. Jarrett considered the question about a Cabinet position “a ridiculous” comment. Mr. Craig said Ms. Jarrett thought Mr. Blagojevich’s already reported legal problems would have disqualified him from joining the Cabinet.

Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond’s law school, said there could still be details in the wiretap tapes that could present a problem for Mr. Obama’s team, but he said Mr. Craig’s report covers the big questions hanging over the transition.

“There doesn’t seem to be much there,” he said.

Also yesterday, Mr. Fitzgerald asked the Illinois legislature to halt parts of its impeachment inquiry against Mr. Blagojevich so as not to jeopardize the criminal investigation. But Mr. Fitzgerald said he is still considering whether to release tapes of conversations captured by wiretap.

Mr. Blagojevich said last week he expects to be vindicated and said he would not give in to a “political lynch mob.”

“I will fight,” he said.

Since the governor’s Dec. 9 arrest, Mr. Obama repeatedly insisted his staff did nothing improper, and scolded reporters who attempted to ask follow-up questions about Mr. Emanuel’s involvement.

Mr. Blagojevich was arrested earlier this month on charges that he attempted to exploit his position as the person with the sole authority to appoint someone to the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by Mr. Obama’s election to the presidency.

Federal authorities detailed in a 76-page affidavit that the Democratic governor, already under investigation for corruption, discussed selling the seat to the candidate willing to offer him cash or political favors.

Among the other charges detailed by Mr. Fitzgerald were that Mr. Blagojevich, 51, and Mr. Harris, 46, threatened to withhold state assistance to the Tribune Co. in connection with the sale of Wrigley Field. The affidavit asserts that Mr. Blagojevich hoped the move would lead to the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial-board members who had criticized him.

Mr. Fitzgerald said the actions and profanity-laden conversations captured on a federal wiretap would make Abraham Lincoln “roll over in his grave.”

The scheme Mr. Blagojevich reportedly discussed on the wiretaps involved several payoffs, including obtaining a high-paid nonprofit job for himself or his wife, promises of campaign fundraising or securing a post within the Obama administration.

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