CHICAGO — Federal prosecutors charged Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Tuesday with engaging in a series of illegal schemes intended to enrich himself, including an attempt to sell the Senate seat recently vacated by President-elect Obama.
In conversations riddled with coarse language and blunt threats that the FBI recorded with telephone wiretaps and listening devices planted in his campaign office, the Democratic governor laid bare a "pay-for-play" culture that, according to prosecutors, began shortly after he took office in 2002 and continued until before sunrise Tuesday, when FBI agents arrested him and John Harris, his chief of staff.
"I've got this thing and it's (expletive) golden," the 51-year-old governor said of his authority to appoint Obama's replacement, "and I'm just not giving it up for (expletive) nothing. I'm not gonna do it."
Prosecutors did not accuse Obama of any wrongdoing or even knowing about the matter. The president-elect said: "I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so I was not aware of what was happening."
Beyond deliberations about filling the Senate seat, Blagojevich (pronounced bluh-GOY-uh-vich) and Harris discussed withholding funding for a children's hospital project until its chief executive made campaign donations, investigators said. They allegedly pressured the owner of the Chicago Tribune to fire a critical editorial writer if the newspaper expected substantial state assistance in the possible sale of Wrigley Field, which is owned by the Tribune Co. and is home to the Chicago Cubs.
"Gov. Blagojevich has been arrested in the middle of what we can only describe as a public corruption crime spree," U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said in announcing the charges Tuesday. "The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave," he added, referring to the former president and Illinois politician.
Extent of case
Fitzgerald emphasized that the case "makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever."
Throughout his career, Obama has adroitly straddled Illinois' bruising politics, forming alliances with some old-style politicians even as he pressed for ethics reform. But Obama had long been estranged from the governor.
The corruption case extended well beyond the Senate appointment, stunned even a state that thought it had seen every brand of political corruption, and created grave doubt over how or when Obama's successor in the Senate might now be selected.
"No appointment by this governor, under these circumstances, could produce a credible replacement," said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.
The case also left many wondering who else might be implicated in Blagojevich's brash negotiations, which were captured in phone calls taped by federal agents since before Election Day.
The governor was charged with two counts: conspiracy to commit fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, and solicitation to commit bribery, which is punishable by up 10 years.
Blagojevich, a former congressman, state lawmaker and prosecutor, also was charged with illegally threatening to withhold state assistance to Tribune Co. He was released on his own recognizance.
Sheldon Sorosky, his lawyer, later told reporters that the governor was "very surprised and certainly feels that he did not do anything wrong."
As recently as Monday, Blagojevich told reporters: "I don't care whether you tape me privately or publicly. I can tell you that whatever I say is always lawful."
Harris, the chief of staff, was accused of taking part in the schemes to enrich the governor.
The charges do not identify by name any of the political figures under consideration for the Senate seat, referring to them only as "Candidate 1," "Candidate 2," and so on.
Several among the half dozen people whose names have been suggested publicly as Senate possibilities did not respond to requests for interviews; others, including Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Emil Jones, the retiring state Senate president who has been one of Blagojevich's few allies in Springfield, issued statements expressing shock over the allegations against Blagojevich, but did not answer requests for interviews.
"If these allegations are proved true, I am outraged by the appalling, pay-to-play schemes hatched at the highest levels of our state government," said Jackson, who had openly expressed interest in Obama's old job and who met with Blagojevich, to whom he is not known to be close, for 90 minutes on Monday afternoon to discuss the post.
In November, Blagojevich asserted to an adviser, the affidavit says, that he knew who Obama wanted — described in the affidavit as Senate Candidate 1, an apparent reference to Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama — but cursed Obama in apparent frustration that "they're not willing to give me anything except appreciation."
Jarrett later took her name out of consideration for the post. She could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
FBI agents targeted Blagojevich and Harris after secretly enlisting close associates, placing a bug in the governor's campaign office and wiretapping his home telephone, all with approval from Justice Department officials and a federal judge in the northern district of Illinois.
The court papers unsealed Tuesday depict a race by the governor and his allies to collect more than $2.5-million in campaign money before year's end, when a new Illinois law barring contributions from people and companies with significant state contracts will take effect.
Troubled by the "feverish" attempts to accelerate fundraising, authorities intensified Operation Board Games, their five-year investigation of kickbacks and government favor trading in Illinois government.
In taped conversations, investigators say they overheard Blagojevich and his senior advisers scrambling to raise money and dispense favors, especially Obama's coveted Senate seat. The governor has the sole authority to appoint a successor.
The men brazenly discussed favors Blagojevich could receive in exchange for naming certain people to the post — using it to leverage an Obama appointment to an ambassadorship or head of the Health and Human Services Department or to win a lucrative job heading a charitable organization such as the Red Cross.
Blagojevich operated under mounting financial pressure and sought a way for him and his wife, Patti, to profit by making as much as $300,000 a year, the documents said. The couple have two young daughters.
The new wiretap evidence supplemented a long-running case authorities had been building against top Illinois officials.
The complaint cited testimony by several financiers with Democratic connections at the corruption trial earlier this year of Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who had raised money for Blagojevich and Obama. Three witnesses told the jury in Rezko's trial that they had crafted lists of political jobs or state contracts they hoped to win in exchange for campaign contributions to Blagojevich.
Information from the Washington Post, New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report