Blagojevich's Downfall

Although shocking, the news that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, was arrested this morning along with his chief of staff was not all that ...
by | December 9, 2008

Although shocking, the news that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, was arrested this morning along with his chief of staff was not all that surprising. It's been clear since 2004 that Blagojevich has been under federal investigation.

But Blagojevich's arrest appears to have been based on recent circumstances. A 76-page federal affidavit states that Blagojevich and John Harris attempted to profit by selling or trading off Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat.

Blagojevich, in other words, has run into the same problem many other public officials have experienced. He seems to have thought he was immune, despite so many indications that the feds were watching his every move.

His cronies, including fundraiser Joseph Cari and Tony Rezko, have been convicted. Top aides have come under investigation -- as has Blagojevich's wife, realtor Patricia Blagojevich, who has done hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of business with the governor's associates and no-bid state contractors.

The Chicago Tribune has posted a useful timeline of the Blagojevich investigation. Note that the Tribune also comes up in the federal complaint:

Blagojevich also was charged with illegally threatening to withhold state assistance to Tribune Co., the owner of the Chicago Tribune, in the sale of Wrigley Field. In return for state assistance, Blagojevich allegedly wanted members of the paper's editorial board who had been critical of him fired.

Through it all, Blagojevich has protested his innocence. That's unlikely to change. Making complex public corruption charges stick -- especially when they overlap so much with official business -- is tough. The first line of defense for virtually all indicted officials is to maintain their innocence and question the political motivations of their accusers.

I suppose after a time, if you believe what you're doing is not simple enrichment but also furthering the state's business -- and you manage to convince yourself that what you're doing will never get you in trouble -- you start to relax. Blagojevich may never have believed the other shoe would fall -- at least not on him.

"People in public office... ought to know they are in somebody's gun sights," says Alan Rosenthal, a Rutgers University political scientist, told me for a public corruption story we published in July. "If it's not an opponent or a newspaper, it's the prosecuting attorney." Blagojevich certainly should have known.

The problem for prosecutors is that public officials always maintain their innocence and it's tough to make a case based on what happens behind closed doors. Usually, they build their case against the top officials by making cases against the little guys, working their way up through a series of convictions and deals.

What appears to have happened in this case, however, is that while U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, of Scooter Libby fame, was painstakingly building his case against Blagojevich, he managed to achieve the prosecutor's dream -- catching the guy on tape.

Just last week, on December 4, Blagojevich allegedly told an advisor that he might "get some (money) up front, maybe" from Senate Candidate 5, if he named Senate Candidate 5 to the Senate seat, to insure that Senate Candidate 5 kept a promise about raising money for Blagojevich if he ran for re-election. In a recorded conversation on October 31, Blagojevich claimed he was approached by an associate of Senate Candidate 5 as follows: "We were approached 'pay to play.' That, you know, he'd raise 500 grand. An emissary came. Then the other guy would raise a million, if I made him (Senate Candidate 5) a Senator."

"The breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "They 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."

Needless to say, Fitzgerald hasn't yet made his case, or even presented it. Blagojevich, who has been planning to run for a third term next year, isn't likely to suddenly fall on his sword, even assuming the feds have got the goods on him.

Unlike Eliot Spitzer and James McGreevey, Blagojevich is not likely to go quietly into that good night. The scandals that drove Spitzer and McGreevey immediately from office were personal in nature and embarrassing enough that there was no viable option but resignation.

Blagojevich's problems are systemic, not personal. But that may prove to be a bigger problem for him. If the evidence is strong regarding the allegations he was trying to sell off Obama's seat, my guess is that Fitzerald will use that as leverage to get Blagojevich to clear up some of the more difficult-to-prove allegations that have been under investigation for the past several years.

Blagojevich may try to fight this out in the court of public opinion, meanwhile, if only to strengthen his legal hand. The question will be whether the public will believe he's capable of trying to sell the seat of the incoming president. If they do, it will mean they've already come to a conclusion about his guilt regarding other allegations that have been in the papers for years.

And Blagojevich has little political support to draw on. No governor has feuded as publicly with his legislature, or at least the state House leadership, as Blagojevich has done.

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