Justice: Blagojevich Sought Payback in Obama Senate Seat

Posted December 9, 2008 at 11:00am

Updated: 12:16 p.m.

The Justice Department alleged Tuesday that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) attempted to profit personally from his power to appoint a new U.S. Senator to replace President–elect Barack Obama, including scheming to get Obama to help create a new multimillion-dollar, nonprofit entity that could hire Blagojevich.

Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, were arrested Tuesday in a wide-ranging federal “pay-to-play” investigation. The Justice Department announced that the two men were both charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and solicitation of bribery.

According to an FBI affidavit unveiled Tuesday morning, Blagojevich was intent on extracting from Obama some kind of personal financial assistance for appointing “Senate Candidate 1” to fill the U.S. Senate seat. Senate Candidate 1 appears to be Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett.

Blagojevich considered asking for an ambassadorial appointment or a Cabinet position in exchange for appointing Jarrett to the seat, according to the FBI. As other candidates emerged for the job, the governor spoke with aides and unnamed advisers in Washington about various options that would improve his personal financial condition, and possibly insulate him from legal hazards based on the long-running corruption investigation of his office.

The affidavit — based on taped telephone conversations — indicates that Blagojevich was interested in either having the labor union coalition “Change to Win” hire him as an executive, or having Obama get wealthy supporters such as Warren Buffett to create a nonprofit entity with a $10 million to $20 million budget that could hire him as an executive.

According to the affidavit, Blagojevich told advisers he “is interested in making $250,000 to $300,000” in annual salary, and “being on some organization boards.”

Blagojevich allegedly said on one telephone conversation that the Senate seat “is a f—ing valuable thing. You just don’t give it away for nothing.”

Several Illinois Democrats, including Reps. Danny Davis, Jan Schakowsky and Jesse Jackson Jr., have been vying for the Senate appointment, and Blagojevich was expected to announce Obama’s replacement by year’s end. There is no indication in the affidavit or in the charges against Blagojevich that any of the candidates or anyone from Obama’s team ever directly discussed any of the schemes outlined in the document.

Obama’s transition team has yet to comment.

The Justice Department announced that the alleged scheme to trade a Senate seat for personal benefits was part of a broader pattern of corrupt activity in Blagojevich’s office including “threatening to withhold substantial state assistance to the Tribune Company in connection with the sale of Wrigley Field, to induce the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial board members sharply critical of Blagojevich, and to obtain campaign contributions in exchange for official actions — both historically and now in a push before a new state ethics law takes effect January 1, 2009.”

If Blagojevich is forced out of office, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn (D), a political reformer, would become governor and would appoint the state’s new Senator.