Illinois governor arrested on corruption charges
Tuesday, Dec 09, 2008 6:50PM UTC
By Michael Conlon and Andrew Stern
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested on Tuesday on corruption charges, including that he tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by fellow Democrat and President-elect Barack Obama.
Prosecutors also said the governor tried to muscle the Chicago Tribune into firing editorial writers who were critical of him.
While Obama has long distanced himself from the governor of his home state -- who has been under investigation on other issues for years -- Blagojevich's arrest was likely to be an embarrassment to the president-elect.
The case shines a light once again on old-style corruption in the Chicago political caldron from which Obama emerged.
"The breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering," U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the federal prosecutor, said in a statement.
It was enough to make Abraham Lincoln "roll over in his grave," Fitzgerald later told reporters, adding the arrest of Blagojevich was made because he wanted to stop a "crime spree."
In Illinois, the governor selects a successor when there is a mid-term vacancy in the U.S. Senate. Obama, who takes office on January 20, resigned from the Senate soon after winning the November 4 presidential election.
How the case might affect his Senate replacement was unclear. There were immediate calls from both Republicans and Democrats in Illinois that Blagojevich resign, allowing the lieutenant governor, also a Democrat, to step in. Under state law, Blagojevich could still make the appointment even if later indicted.
But federal prosecutors said they moved against the governor before he could make the Senate choice.
Neither Blagojevich or his office issued a statement after the charges were revealed. The governor and a senior aide were taken into custody at their Chicago homes. Blagojevich was due in court later on Tuesday.
Federal prosecutors said Obama was not implicated.
"I should make clear the complaint makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever," Fitzgerald said.
Obama aides would not immediately comment on the charges against the governor, but said the Obama transition office would be issuing a statement.
"FOR SALE" SIGN
The 51-year-old Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, were each charged in a federal complaint with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and a second count of solicitation of bribery.
In his statement, Fitzgerald said the charges "allege that Blagojevich put a 'for sale' sign on the naming of a United States senator; involved himself personally in pay-to-play schemes with the urgency of a salesman meeting his annual sales target; and corruptly used his office in an effort to trample editorial voices of criticism."
Blagojevich was accused of threatening to withhold state assistance to the Tribune Company in connection with the sale of the Chicago Cubs' baseball home, Wrigley Field, in order "to induce the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial board members sharply critical" of him, Fitzgerald said.
Blagojevich allegedly was caught on court-authorized wiretaps during the last month.
He was seeking a "substantial" salary for himself at a nonprofit foundation or union affiliated organization, a spot on a corporate board for his wife, promises of campaign cash, as well as a cabinet post or ambassadorship in exchange for his Senate choice, an FBI affidavit said.
Even though it was unclear what would happen now to the selection of a successor to Obama in the Senate, the spot would be certain to go to a Democrat. Democrats, with independent allies, will hold at least 58 seats in the 100-seat Senate when the new Congress convenes in early January. A Minnesota Senate seat is still undecided.
Blagojevich, in his second term, is the latest in a string of Illinois governors to run afoul of the law. His immediate predecessor, George Ryan, is in jail following a federal corruption conviction.
HEFTY PRISON TERM POSSIBLE
If Blagojevich is convicted, each mail and wire fraud charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison while each bribery charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Each count carries a maximum fine of $250,000.
Blagojevich was elected to the Illinois state House in 1992 and later won a seat in the U.S. Congress that had been held by another politician who ran afoul of the law, Dan Rostenkowski.
He became Illinois' first Democratic governor in nearly 30 years when he replaced Ryan in 2003, on a platform of reform. But his popularity has descended to an all-time low after wrangles with fellow Democrats in the state legislature, some of whom had threatened him with impeachment.
(Reporting by Michael Conlon and James Vicini, Kyle Peterson and Karen Pierog in Chicago, Editing by Jackie Frank and Frances Kerry)