Blagojevich indictment about money -- lots of it
By Mike Robinson
CHICAGO — The federal racketeering indictment against former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is all about money, and lots of it — including the big bucks he is accused of trying to collect selling or swapping President Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat.
The wide-ranging, 19-count indictment returned Thursday alleges the ousted governor hoped to get a lofty Cabinet post, substantial campaign cash or a high-paying job for his wife in exchange for the seat.
The indictment paints Blagojevich as intent on grinding out as much campaign cash as possible and filling his pockets — even if it meant committing extortion and fraud.
The refinancing of billions of dollars in state pension money was in play in a massive kickback scheme, the indictment says. It says his wife got thousands of dollars in unearned real estate fees and a $12,000-a-month spot on convicted fixer Tony Rezko’s payroll.
Blagojevich, 52, who was impeached in January after the scandal boiled over, denied Thursday that he had done anything illegal.
"I’m saddened and hurt but I am not surprised by the indictment," Blagojevich, who was in Walt Disney World with his family, said in a statement. "I am innocent. I now will fight in the courts to clear my name."
Prosecutors accuse Blagojevich and members of his inner circle of scheming to line their pockets with millions of dollars squeezed out of contractors, hospital owners and others seeking state business and then planning to divide up the proceeds after he left office.
In one incident, the indictment says an Illinois congressman asked about a $2 million grant included in the state budget for a school. But Blagojevich allegedly told a state official to tell the lawmaker his brother would have to raise campaign funds or the grant wouldn’t go through.
That congressman is now Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, attorneys familiar with the case said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the congressman isn’t named in the indictment and the information is secret grand jury material.
At the time, Emanuel represented the 5th District on Chicago’s North Side. Some of the funds were later released, even though no fundraiser had been held.
The indictment does not say which of Emanuel’s two brothers was involved. Emanuel’s brother Ari is a Hollywood agent and the inspiration for Ari Gold, the Type-A superagent on the HBO series "Entourage." His brother Ezekiel is an oncologist.
Obama’s deputy press secretary, Josh Earnest, said the White House would not comment on the indictment, which does not allege wrongdoing by Obama or his aides.
The indictment also accuses Blagojevich of seeking to withhold state aid from Tribune Co. unless it fired Chicago Tribune editorial writers urging his impeachment.
And, prosecutors claim Blagojevich told an aide he didn’t want executives with two financial institutions getting further state business after he concluded they were not helping his wife get a high-paying job. She was not charged.
Others charged were brother Robert Blagojevich; former chief of staff Alonzo Monk; one-time chief fundraiser Christopher G. Kelly; Springfield lobbyist-millionaire William F. Cellini; and another former chief of staff, John Harris. Harris has agreed to cooperate, prosecutors said.
Robert Blagojevich is chairman of the Friends of Rod Blagojevich campaign fund.
"We were hoping that it wouldn’t happen but now we go to trial and win," his attorney, Michael Ettinger, said after the indictment.
Cellini attorney Dan Webb said his client never had a substantive conversation with Blagojevich, much less conspired with him. Messages were left for attorneys for Monk, Kelly and Harris.
Rod Blagojevich was indicted on charges of racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud, extortion conspiracy and attempted extortion, and making false statements. Most of those charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The indictment seeks to seize at least $188,370 held by the Friends of Blagojevich campaign fund. If the money can’t be found, Blagojevich might have to forfeit his Washington D.C. apartment and Chicago home.
The then-governor was arrested Dec. 9 on a criminal complaint and U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald faced a Tuesday deadline to supplant it with an indictment handed up by a federal grand jury. The Democrat’s arrest led to his political downfall: The Illinois House impeached him Jan. 9. The Senate convicted him and removed him from office Jan. 29.
"Today more than ever I’m committed to making sure we have reform from top to bottom," new Gov. Pat Quinn told reporters Thursday. "The people of Illinois are entitled to an honest governor who works for them 24 hours a day, every day."
Illinois lawmakers had considered stripping Blagojevich of his Senate-appointment powers after his arrest, but couldn’t agree on legislation. Blagojevich shocked everyone by naming former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to the seat Dec. 30.
Burris has since come under fire for changing his story about the circumstances surrounding his appointment, first saying he hadn’t contacted a key Blagojevich adviser about the seat but later released an affidavit saying he had spoken to several advisers, including the governor’s brother. He also acknowledged trying, unsuccessfully, to raise money for Blagojevich.
Burris spokesman Jim O’Connor said Thursday that the embattled senator would not comment on the indictment. Earlier in the day, Burris told reporters with The Hill as he came off the Senate floor that it "has nothing to do with me."
Illinoisans expressed corruption fatigue Thursday.
"I’m so disgusted," said Linda Dowdy, a 59-year-old Belleville tavern manager who calls herself a hardcore Democrat. She lamented even well-intentioned politicians don’t last long in office.
"He may have every intention of going in and trying to change things and of making things better," she said. "But once he’s in, he doesn’t have any choice but to be as crooked as they are or he’s not gonna stay in there."