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.