In the fall and early winter of 2008, former Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich, was caught on a series of tapes attempting to sell the US Senate seat soon to be vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. It caused quite a sensation when the case broke in early December. The resultant early reports of involvement or complicity by top Obama people put quite a dent in the showroom finish of the new administration
For much of the nation the Blago case was their first lesson in how things are done in Illinois. Stunned voters didn't have to connect too many dots before they got a picture of what we would be seeing more of in the weeks and months to come. So much for “Hope and Change”.
A brief recap of the case offers a Who’s Who of Democratic politics. One of the bidders, allegedly, was Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. who had a platoon of fundraisers out trying to scratch together $6.5 Million. Convicted fixer and fraudster, Tony Rezko, the new President’s old pal and next door-neighbor was implicated. Also playing parts were key members of the Obama team; Rham Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett, as well as Senators Harry Reid and Dick Durbin. A local Union official, Tom Balanoff president of Local 1 of the SEIU, the union associated with ACORN, is alleged to have acted as a “cut-out” between the Obama team and Blago in the Governor’s mansion. There were bugs crawling around under every rock. All that was needed was a court case that would kick a few of them over.
Unfortunately, crack Federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, sprung the trap before money actually changed hands, which means the main crime, actually “selling” a Senate seat, technically was never committed,. Why he did not wait a day or two until he caught all concerned in the act has not been made satisfactorily clear. As a result of Fitzgerald's jumping of the gun, Federal Prosecutors had to base their case entirely on recordings of wire taps and testimony involving other crimes and cases of bribery, which, other than “guilt by association”, did not directly involve members of the Obama Administration
Still, the case against Rod Blagojevich seems not only rock solid, but sensationally so.
To an Illinois public accustomed to existing in a dirty political world, Blago was widely known to be running an exceptionally dirty operation. His administration was something special even by Illinois standards. On one of the tapes, when Children's Memorial Hospital balked at making the suggested $50,000 “donation”, Blago was heard to say “Screw those guys” -- and he held up State funding to the hospital. His brand of politics was not tiddly-winks.
However, Blago’s methods were not so far out of line that he had any problem getting reelected in 2006. Voters in the Land of Lincoln when given the choice between a crook or a Republican, no matter how Rino-like, can always find a reason to go with the Democrat. Look at the current Illinois Senate race between bland establishment Republican, Mark Kirk, and disgraced banker and failed State Treasurer, Alexi Giannoulias, Democrat. It’s neck and neck.
As the corruption trial heated up over the last year Blago was everywhere; making personal appearances, phoning in on talk shows, even at one point hosting his own weekend talker; and all the while professing his innocence and defiantly vowing to take the stand and name names. In fact, he regularly declared his eagerness to take the stand to tell his side of the story. He was only doing what everyone else in Illinois politics does, and he was not going to go to prison without naming names.
Naturally, people in Washington were nervous. Pile the Blago trial on top of the Gulf oil leak, the economy, unemployment, resentment over health care, and etc., all coming just before the mid-term elections, and you can picture the sleepless nights in the White House, in Georgetown, or in other enclaves of power.
It was clear from the start that the official media grasped the serious implications of just how badly it could go if things spun out of control. You see at work their instinct to soft-peddle the trial, which began in June, as a sordid, second-rate “page 3” story. The big reporters were not present at Chicago’ Federal Court Building. The breathless coverage, the interviews, the speculation were largely absent. Lindsay Lohan, LeBron James, even the President's current vacation plans, padded the news and helped squeeze coverage. The trial to proceed next-to unnoticed.
In the media's spin, this was simply the trial of a local big-shot who opened his mouth one time too many and got caught. Nothing to do with Barack Obama or his associations or the polluted political pond that for years he swam in.
But there was always a feeling that the media was holding their breath -- up until news broke that the defense would rest without calling Blago to testify in his own defense.
Not only would the defense rest with no Blago, but it would rest with no Emanuel, no Rezko, no Jarrett, no Durbin, no Jackson, no Reid, no etc… That’s a lot of questions dodged by a lot of people.
Locals may greet the news with a shrug. Around Chicago far worse things get swept under the rug all the time. A few years ago a mysterious fire in the Evidence Room of the Cook County Building killed six county employees. There was some initial hubbub, but after a week or two the story just went away. To this day all we know about the matter is that some evidence was destroyed and six people died. The man ultimately in charge of the investigation, Cook County Board President John Stroger, was a supporter of Barack Obama.
Can anybody reading this guess how the “deal” was made? I can't. Who gets what, and how was the problem made to go away? Previous Illinois Governor, Republican George Ryan, is mid-way through a seven year sentence for corruption. How much time will Blago get? Will he get any time? Will he retire somewhere fat and happy with an off-shore bank account?
It is all part of the infinite puzzle of Chicago Politics.