Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, were arrested today by FBI agents for what U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald called a "staggering" level of corruption involving pay-to-play politics in Illinois' top office.
Blagojevich is accused of a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy, including alleged attempts by the governor to try to sell or trade the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by President-elect Barack Obama in exchange for financial benefits for the governor and his wife. Blagojevich also is accused of obtaining campaign contributions in exchange for other official actions.
Blagojevich was taken into federal custody at his North Side home this morning--one day shy of his 52nd birthday.
At a news conference late this morning, Fitzgerald said Blagojevich "has taken us to a truly new low" and went on "a political corruption crime spree. We acted to stop that crime spree."Fitzgerald also accused Blagojevich of attempting "to sell the U.S. Senate seat" that President-elect Barack Obama vacated.
Robert Grant, FBI special agent in charge of the Chicago office, said the arrest of Blagojevich should serve as notice that "business as usual will no longer be tolerated. That selling your office for personal gain is a thing of the past."
Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn today called on Blagojevich to step aside, at least temporarily, because the governor is "seriously impeded from carrying out his oath of office."
"I think that should certainly be considered by the governor today. I think he knows what he needs to do for the people," Quinn said at a news conference this afternoon.
Quinn would assume control of the governor's office if Blagojevich were to step aside under the Illinois Constitution.
Obama told reporters he was "saddened and sobered" by Blagojevich's arrest.
"I was not aware of what was happening," Obama said. "I had no contact with the governor or his office and so I was not aware of what was happening."
Tribune Editor Gerould W. Kern said today that the newspaper delayed publishing some stories at the request of the U.S. attorney's office during the course of reporting on the accelerating investigation of Blagojevich.
"On occasion, prosecutors asked us to delay publication of stories, asserting that disclosure would jeopardize the criminal investigation." Kern said. "In isolated instances, we granted the requests, but other requests were refused."
The stunning, early morning arrest came amid revelations that federal investigators had compiled secret recordings of the governor with the cooperation of a longtime confidant. In recent days, the focus of federal investigators turned to the possibility that Blagojevich's appointment to the Senate had become tainted by pay-to-play politics.
The Democratic governor has said he expects to make a decision on the state's next senator in weeks.
Blagojevich and Harris were arrested simultaneously at their homes at about 6:15 a.m., according to the FBI. They were transported to FBI headquarters in Chicago. Blagojevich is slated to appear at 1:30 p.m. before U.S. Magistrate Judge Nan Nolan today, according to Randall Samborn of the U.S. attorney's office.
On the issue of the U.S. Senate seat that Obama resigned Nov. 16, federal prosecutors said they had numerous recorded conversations of Blagojevich discussing the merits of potential candidates, including their abilities to benefit the people of Illinois as well as the financial and political benefits he and his wife, First Lady Patricia Blagojevich, could receive.
Ald. Dick Mell (33rd), Blagojevich's father-in-law, said it was a "terrible day." Mell, who often feuded with Blagojevich, said, "My main concern right now is for my daughter and my grandchildren."
Mayor Richard Daley, reacting at a news conference, said today is "a sad day. If it's true, it's very, very sad because the selection of a U.S. senator is vitally important."
Prosecutors also alleged Blagojevich expressed feeling "stuck" as a sitting governor and spent a large amount of time weighing whether he should appoint himself to the vacancy--possibly to avoid impeachment and help remake his image for a potential 2016 run for the presidency. A recent Tribune poll found Blagojevich with a record low 13 percent job approval rating.
Under state law, the governor has the sole unfettered discretion to name Obama's appointment.
Prosecutors alleged Blagojevich sought appointment as Secretary of Health and Human Services, secretary of the Energy Department or gain an ambassadorship in the new Obama administration, or get a lucrative job with a union in exchange for appointing a union-preferred candidate. An Obama spokesman had no immediate comment.
Blagojevich also was alleged to be using a favors list, made up largely of individuals and firms that have state contracts or received taxpayer benefits, from which to conduct a $2.5 million fundraising drive before year's end when a new tougher law on campaign donations, prompted by the governor's voracious fundraising, would take effect.
Even Blagojevich's recently announced $1.8 billion plan for new interchanges and "green lanes" on the Illinois Tollway was subject to corruption, prosecutors alleged. The criminal complaint alleges Blagojevich expected an unnamed highway concrete contractor to raise a half-million dollars for his campaign fund in exchange for state money for the tollway project. "If they don't perform, (expletive) 'em," Blagojevich said, according to the complaint.
Blagojevich and Harris also allegedly conspired to demand the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial board members responsible for editorials critical of Blagojevich in exchange for state help with the sale of Wrigley Field, the Chicago Cubs baseball stadium owned by Tribune Co.
In addition, federal prosecutors alleged Blagojevich and Harris, along with others, obtained and sought to gain financial benefits for the governor, members of his family and his campaign fund in exchange for appointments to state boards and commissions, state jobs and state contracts.
"The breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering," U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said in a statement.
"They allege that Blagojevich put a 'for sale' sign on the naming of a United States senator; involved himself personally in pay-to-play schemes with the urgency of a salesman meeting his annual sales target; and corruptly used his office in an effort to trample editorial voices of criticism."
-- Jeff Coen and Rick Pearson