(Chicago, IL) — June 23, 2010. While Illinois was waiting for its newest U.S. senator to be named, FBI wiretaps reveal former Governor Rod Blagojevich was playing political games.
And those games started almost immediately upon the election of Barack Obama to the presidency.
“You’re pitting one team against another like a free agent,” he told former Chief of Staff John Harris on Election Day 2008. “You say ‘what’re you offering Obama’–’what’re you offering Madigan.’”
The alleged sale of Obama’s former Senate seat is by far the most famous charge against the former governor. But taped conversations and Harris’ testimony on Tuesday in Blagojevich’s federal corruption trial paint a picture of a volatile and jumbled mind–and a governor consumed by self-interest, according to the prosecution.
Blagojevich’s mouth ran a mile a minute and a curse-word a sentence in conversations with Harris.
He vocalized his desire to trade the seat in order to become the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Ambassador to the United Nations or any other country–anything to “get me the fuck out of (Illinois).”
He let loose those demands and more in less than 24 hours.
Blagojevich felt the Senate appointment was his best ticket to achieve some sort of political or personal victory, according to Harris. His demands outnumbered the serious candidates, each of which was put forth to achieve some sort of goal.
There was Valerie Jarrett, the Chicago businesswoman favored by then-president-elect Obama.
Or Attorney General Lisa Madigan, daughter of Blagojevich’s political rival Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Or Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, a close ally of the governor. Blagojevich allegedly ruled him out after Jones helped overrule the governor’s veto on ethics legislation, which limited campaign contributions from people doing business with the state.
The tapes could prove the defense’s claim that Blagojevich was a man who ran his mouth without any intention of serious follow through.
But the prosecution’s witness said Blagojevich was not interested in deliberate decision-making–he was looking out for his own interests.
“He wanted a good deal for himself, as good or better than being a senator himself,” Harris said.
Blagojevich allegedly believed that he could use Lisa Madigan’s appointment to bolster his chances of landing a cabinet position in the Obama administration.
“(Lisa Madigan) was never a serious candidate,” Harris said. “It was a storyline for Barack Obama‘s people.”
Obama wanted the governor to appoint Jarrett to the seat. But the tapes show Blagojevich wanted to drive a hard bargain.
“Do they think I’d appoint (Valerie Jarrett) for nothing, just to make (Obama) happy?” he said to Harris.
The tapes would seem to indicate, Blagojevich hoped a Jarrett appointment could beget one of his own–he wanted to be the Secretary of Health and Human Services and talked at length with Harris about the position.
Blagojevich felt that he would have a more realistic shot at the nomination by convincing Obama that he had sacrificed a Lisa Madigan nomination in order to fulfill the president-elect’s wishes.
Taped conversations represent a major obstacle for defense attorneys. And while Blagojevich’s attorneys will have to wait some time to cross examine the witness–the prosecutions said Harris will be on the stand the rest of the week–they have had plenty of time to create doubt among jurors about the tapes.
Lead Blagojevich attorney Sam Adam Jr. claimed Lisa Madigan was always Blagojevich’s top choice in his opening statement.
“Lisa Madigan, (Blagojevich’s) No. 1 pick, was going to stop the log jam (in the Illinois General Assembly) and get things done for the people of Illinois,” he said.
A call Blagojevich placed later revealed the former governor’s distaste for not only Speaker Madigan’s “log jam,” but his backers at the Chicago Tribune, whose owner Sam Zell was lobbying the state for assistance.
He told Harris he wanted something done about the paper’s editorial board after it released a column praising Madigan’s resistance to the Blagojevich agenda.
“Fire all those fuckers (writers) and get me some editorial support,” he told Harris.
He later relented from the threat saying, “I don’t wanna give them grounds to impeach me.” Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office less than three months after the conversation took place.
The defense is arguing that the deals Blagojevich was talking about are common political maneuvers–not means of corruption–and that money was never a main issue.
The defense team does have some tape to back up its claim.
Blagojevich said on tape he ruled out Jones’ candidacy because “he can’t do much for me aside from raise money.”
Blagojevich also talked with Harris about sending Lisa Madigan to the seat, in order to enact healthcare reform and balance the budget.
“I’m gonna (act) in good faith, but it’s not gonna be for free,” he said. “It’s gonna come and be good for the people of Illinois and good for me…(but) do the most good for the people.”
Harris, however, testified that Blagojevich was really just rehearsing his public talking points in case there were allegations of corruption.
Blagojevich apparently did come to terms with the fact he could be rebuked by both Obama and Madigan, according to the tape, as he considered himself for the Senate seat.
“I got my ace-in-the-hole,” he said. “I’ll send myself.”
Harris is testifying against his former boss in exchange for a reduced sentence on a conspiracy to solicit a bribe charge. He pled guilty earlier this year.
Blagojevich faces up to 415 years in prison if convicted of charges that include racketeering and extortion.
–Bill McMorris, Illinois Statehouse News