Blagojevich Brought to Justice

But Illinois' culture of corruption lives on.

Rod Blagojevich, the impeached former governor of Illinois, was found guilty on Monday of 17 counts of wire fraud, attempted extortion, bribery and conspiracy. Most of the charges related to his desire to sell the Senate seat of Barack Obama in exchange for campaign contributions. The disgraced governor's conviction closes the book on another sad chapter of sleaze and corruption in Illinois politics. It also puts to rest a troublesome issue that had been dogging the Obama administration for more than two years, as questions about the involvement of the president's transition team in Blagojevich's schemes have now been laid to rest.

The jury acquitted the former governor on one count and was unable to reach a verdict on another count of trying to shakedown a construction executive. Jury members were also deadlocked on one count relating to a shakedown of former Congressman, now Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel. While most of the counts involved Obama's vacated Senate seat, Blagojevich was also convicted on two separate charges of trying to shake down Illinois businessmen by granting them favors in return for cash.

Blagojevich is the 4th governor since 1973 to be convicted of a felony. The state has also seen an incredible run of other politicians and state officials being marched off to jail. At least 79 Illinois public officials have been convicted of wrongdoing since 1972, including now 4 governors, two other state officials, 15 state legislators, two congressmen, one mayor, three Chicago city officials, 27 Chicago aldermen, 19 Cook County judges, and seven other Cook County officials.

The unifying factor in the overwhelming majority of these cases was petty, personal monetary aggrandizement. Payoffs to judges for lenient sentences or even acquittals, kickbacks to aldermen, illegal campaign contributions, cash in shoeboxes, “pay to play” payoffs, contracts to cronies -- the endless, ridiculous, maddening, depressing litany of abuses Illinois taxpayers have had to endure for most of the 20th century and beyond have made the state a laughingstock.

So it was with the Blagojevich caper. This was the second trial of the former governor in less than a year. The first trial ended ignominiously for the prosecution when the jury could come to an agreement on only 1 of 25 counts in the indictment, convicting Blagojevich of lying to the FBI. A review of that trial by US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's office discovered that the jurors were confused by the numerous threads of wrongdoing by Blagojevich, including a prosecutorial effort to convict the former governor on several counts of racketeering. Also, Blagojevich's brother Robert stood trial at the same time on 4 other corruption charges on which the jury could not agree.

For the second trial, the prosecutors streamlined the charges, concentrating on the "pay for play" schemes of Blagojevich to sell Obama's Senate seat in exchange for either a cabinet post in the president's administration, or hefty campaign contributions from other players. They also declined to retry Robert Blagojevich and dropped the racketeering complaints altogether.

Unlike his trial last summer, Blagojevich took the stand in his own defense. For seven dramatic days, Blagojevich held the court spellbound as he mounted a spirited defense of his actions in the Obama Senate seat controversy. He endured 3 days of grilling by Assistant US Attorney Reid Schar, who questioned his honesty, his motives, and his character.

The governor's defense -- that he was only doing what all other politicians do in the course of their duties -- fell flat with the jury. What he referred to as "horse trading" turned out to be far more than simple political back-scratching. Secret recordings made by Fitzgerald's office prove that time and again, Blagojevich discussed either large campaign contributions or a lucrative job offer for himself in exchange for appointing a favored politician to the Senate seat.

The prosecutors bore in on two specific targets whom Blagojevich was seeking to shakedown: President Obama's good friend and confidant Valerie Jarrett and Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. The evidence regarding Jackson, son of former Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, was overwhelming against the former governor. Recordings revealed several attempts to get a rich backer of Jackson, an Indian businessman named Raghu Nayak, to hold private fundraisers for Blagojevich in exchange for giving the congressman the Senate seat. The attempts to realize this scheme continued right up to the day that Blagojevich was arrested on December 9, 2008.

But the marquee testimony dealt with Blagojevich's attempts to finagle a cabinet post, or lucrative union job, by holding up the Obama transition team over the president's choice of Jarrett to take his seat.

There is no doubt that Obama wanted Jarrett for the seat. The question has always been how far the president was willing to go to get it for her. What the recordings reveal is that the Obama transition team sensed exactly what Blagojevich was selling and had minimal contact with him. No doubt the president and his chief transition aide at the time, Emanuel, both long-time players in the rough and tumble world of Chicago politics, knew the game Blagojevich was playing and further understood the legal ramifications involved.

In fact, Blagojevich was being so blatant about his pay for play schemes that Valerie Jarrett eventually asked President Obama to withdraw her name from consideration. Jarrett, too, was a veteran of the Chicago political scene and no doubt sensed danger in Blagojevich's wheeling and dealing.

But that didn't prevent Obama's people from sending several go-betweens, including powerful SEIU union chief Tom Balanoff, to scout out the former governor and try to come to an agreement.

In a call to Balanoff, Blagojevich was recorded trying to get President Obama to give him a plush job with a non-profit union foundation after his term as governor was up. When it became clear that the president was not going to give him what he wanted -- a cabinet post or a sinecure with a private foundation or company -- Blagojevich's frustration boiled over into an expletive-laced tirade, concluding with:

“[T]hey’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation. [expletive] them.”

The recorded conversation with Balanoff elicited this exchange between prosecutor Schar and Blagojevich:

Schar: "You tell Tom Balanoff you want $25 million [in the foundation's fund and then a job there.]"
Blagojevich:"Possibly work there."
Schar: "You wanted the money quickly?"
Blagojevich: "So I could fight for health care and join the fight."

Eventually, Schar got Blagojevich to expose himself by asking, "Did you mean to communicate to Mr. Balanoff that you would give Jarrett the Senate seat if you got your funding for your 501c4?"

"No, I didn't mean to do that," Blagojevich said after being directed by the judge to answer the question.

No one believed him -- especially the jury.

After the verdict was read, the jurors were unanimous in their belief that they had reached the right decision. One juror said, "He proved himself guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. He kept saying ‘Do it!’ ‘Push it!’  ‘Get it done!’ That’s where he crossed the line.”  Another juror mentioned how difficult it was to reach an agreement on many of the counts. “Many times, we had to keep re-voting,”  the juror said. Others commented on the difficulty of overlooking how personable Blagojevich could be, as the former governor turned on the charm on the witness stand. “We had to put aside whether we liked him or didn’t like him and just go by the evidence presented to us," said one.

The Blagojevich odyssey is not quite over. No sentencing date has been set but US District Judge James Zagel has ordered Blagojevich not to leave Northern Illinois. And there will be the inevitable appeals by the former governor's defense team.

Blagojevich himself said he was "stunned" by his conviction. Herein lies the real Shakespearean tragedy of the disgraced governor's life and times. For the classical tragic figures -- Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear -- it was a combination of their flaws as human beings and their inability to recognize that those flaws would lead to their own destruction, which gave their characters pathos and supplied a sense of impending doom that surrounded them.

For the disgraced ex-governor -- arrested, impeached, convicted, tried twice, and now found guilty on 17 counts of political malfeasance and corruption -- there will be no second act.