On more than one occasion during his stunning press conference Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald bluntly said he has found no evidence of wrongdoing by President-elect Barack Obama in the tangled, tawdry scheme that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich allegedly cooked up to sell Obama's now vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder. But for politicians it's never good news when a top-notch prosecutor has to go out of his way to distance you from a front-page scandal. And indeed, there are enough connections between the worlds of Blagojevich and Obama that the whole thing has the potential to grow beyond a colorful Chicago tale of corruption to entangle members of the Presidential transition team, to test Obama's carefully cultivated reformist image and to distract the President-elect just as he is preparing to take office.
The Obama Senate seat scheme is only one of the allegations lodged against the two-term governor, whose administration has been under investigation for alleged "pay to play" patronage practices for years. The complaint claims Blagoevich tried to extort the owners of the Tribune company to fire editors at the Chicago Tribune, and to withhold $8 million of state funds to a children's hospital in hopes of extracting a $50,000 campaign contribution from one of its executives. Blagojevich, who came into office in 2002 with promises to clean up the state's culture of graft, made no comment Tuesday during a bail hearing where he was released on his own recognizance. But late in the day his lawyer Sheldon Sorosky told reporters that the governor "is very surprised and certainly feels that he did not do anything wrong...a lot of this is just politics." (See pictures of who will be in Obama's White House.)
In laying out the federal criminal complaint, U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald said Blagojevich went far beyond the realm of hard-knuckle politics into a "political corruption crime spree." The central allegation is that the governor schemed to extort money and jobs for himself and his wife from the Obama transition team in exchange for naming Obama's preferred candidate (unnamed in the charges) to the open Senate seat. The complaint details Blagojevich's attempts to contact intermediaries to the transition and in one case shows him soliciting favors from a union official he identifies as an "emissary." All this alleged activity was taking place, amazingly, at a time when Blagojevich had every reason to believe he was being closely monitored by the U.S. Attorney's office.
For the time being, Obama and his aides have declined to comment on the complaint. Asked about the matter at a photo op Tuesday afternoon, Obama himself said he was "saddened and sobered" by the news but that he had not been in contact with Blagojevich and was "not aware of what was happening."
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