- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009

A federal grand jury on Thursday indicted disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich on sweeping corruption charges, saying he ran the state like a crime syndicate from the moment he took office in hopes of enriching himself personally and empowering himself politically.

It’s the latest chapter in a bizarre political saga that has seen the quixotic Mr. Blagojevich face impeachment and removal from office, and keeping anything but a low profile afterward even appearing as a guest on late-night television.

The indictment charges Mr. Blagojevich, 52, with 16 felony counts, including racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud, extortion conspiracy, attempted extortion and making false statements to federal agents. He could face decades in prison if convicted.

Also named in the indictment are Mr. Blagojevich’s brother, Robert; his former chief of staff John Harris; a lobbyist and longtime Blagojevich associate, Alonzo Monk; and two businessmen, Christopher Kelly and William F. Cellini Sr.

“As part of the racketeering conspiracy, Blagojevich allegedly permitted Kelly and [disgraced financier Tony] Rezko to exercise substantial influence over certain gubernatorial activities, as well as state boards and commissions, knowing that they would use this influence to enrich themselves and their associates,” according to a statement from prosecutors. “In return, Kelly and Rezko allegedly benefited Blagojevich by generating millions of dollars in campaign contributions and providing financial benefits directly to Blagojevich and his family.”

Prosecutors did not give public interviews or talk to reporters.

In a statement issued by his public-relations firm, Mr. Blagojevich reiterated his longstanding claims of innocence and urged against a public rush to judgment.

“I’m saddened and hurt but I am not surprised by the indictment. I am innocent. I now will fight in the courts to clear my name. I would ask the good people of Illinois to wait for the trial and afford me the presumption of innocence that they would give to all their friends and neighbors,” he said in a Publicity Agency statement that declared he would give no interviews. Mr. Blagojevich was not in Chicago on Thursday.

Many of the accusations against Mr. Blagojevich were revealed in charging documents after his initial arrest in December, such as charges he tried to sell to the highest bidder the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by President Obama and that he tried to get the Chicago Tribune to fire opinion writers in exchange for state funding for the Tribune-owned Chicago Cubs.

But the indictment also includes new accusations.

Prosecutors say Mr. Blagojevich’s corruption began right after he was elected in 2002. According to the indictment, Mr. Blagojevich and others, including convicted real-estate developer Rezko, agreed to use Mr. Blagojevich’s new office to raise a pot of money that would be divided up among them and distributed after Mr. Blagojevich left office.

Rezko, who was Mr. Blagojevich’s principal fundraiser and also raised money for Mr. Obama, is now cooperating with federal authorities in the hopes of receiving a lesser sentence, according to court records.

One of their ways to make money, according to the indictment, was extortion. Prosecutors say they tried to extort state contractors, a Congress member who is not named in the indictment, and a children’s hospital.

Some of the accusations are classic big-city-machine corruption, but on a grand scale.

In 2003, according to the indictment, Mr. Blagojevich and others, including Rezko, pushed the lucrative business of refinancing the state’s pension bonds to a company whose lobbyists agreed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks.

But prosecutors say Mr. Blagojevich lied during a 2005 interview with FBI agents when he said that he maintains a firewall between politics and state business, and does not keep track of, or even want to know, who is contributing to him.

The indictments build on the charges revealed after Mr. Blagojevich’s arrest.

U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who is overseeing the case, said in December that the arrest was made to stop “a political corruption spree.”

Authorities appeared particularly concerned about stopping Mr. Blagojevich from improperly appointing someone to the U.S. Senate.

He ended up naming former state Attorney General Roland Burris, who says he did not try to buy the seat. But Mr. Burris is now being investigated over emphatic statements before an Illinois state panel that he never talked to any Blagojevich associates about fundraising or interest in the seat.

Mr. Burris was not mentioned in the indictment.

Earlier in the day, when a Blagojevich indictment was rumored as imminent, Mr. Burris was caught on Capitol Hill by reporters with The Hill newspaper and said it “has nothing to do with me.”

Authorities initially charged Mr. Blagojevich through a criminal complaint, which requires only that an investigator make a sworn complaint to a judge. A criminal complaint also requires authorities to present their case to a grand jury by a set deadline and obtain an indictment in order for the case to proceed.

Prosecutors had already received one extension from a judge and had until Tuesday to obtain an indictment. The extra time allowed investigators to expand their inquiry and bring more detailed charges.

No court dates have been scheduled for any of the six defendants.

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