About 6 a.m. today, a ringing telephone woke Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. It was a top agent the Federal Bureau of Investigation, telling the governor that he was being arrested.
"Is this a joke?" asked Blagojevich.
Unfortunately for the governor, it was serious business—a case that could send Blagojevich to prison on corruption charges. It has also thrown into disarray the selection of a replacement for the U.S. Senate seat for Illinois being vacated by President-Elect Obama, a spot that is to be filled by the governor.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald Tuesday accused Gov. Blagojevich, a Democrat, of trying to sell the open Senate seat for financial favors, such as a high-paying job for himself at a non-profit group or a labor union, and perhaps a corporate board seat for his wife, Patti Blagojevich. The prosecutor characterized Blagojevich's conduct as corruption so brazen it was "disgusting" and "as low as you could go." The complaint charges Blagojevich, as well as his chief of staff, John Harris, with federal mail and wire fraud charges. Blagojevich was released on his own recognizance this afternoon after appearing before U.S. Magistrate Nan Nolan in Chicago. The governor offered no comments today, but his office issued a general statement saying the arrest would have "no impact" on the people of Illinois, and that all business would continue.
The immediate political fallout was unclear. In most places, the indictment of a sitting governor would spell disaster for the party in power in the state capitol. But Democrats here in Illinois seem surprisingly calm. The Republicans already have a governor of their own behind bars—Blagojevich's predecessor, George Ryan—and had trouble even fielding a candidate against Barack Obama on his way to the U.S. Senate. Obama's election as president puts the state GOP into further eclipse. The short-term beneficiary stands to be Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, but he's not seen as likely to cut much of a figure on the national stage.
The 76-page federal complaint, which gathered evidence from phone wiretaps at Blagojevich's home and office, claims that the governor boasted of his power to choose a senator as a "golden" opportunity and that he was "not going to give it away for nothing."
According to the complaint, Blagojevich complained that one possible candidate for the Senate job was unwilling to give anything in exchange, other than appreciation. Fitzpatrick said Blagojevich also considered naming himself for the seat, a spot that he apparently believed could give him bargaining power if he were to be indicted.
Among those said to be under consideration for the Senate job have been U.S. Representatives Jesse Jackson Jr. and Danny K. Davis, as well as retired state Senate president, Emil Jones and Tammy Duckworth, who heads the state's veteran affairs office. But the arrest of Blagojevich casts doubt on whether he will choose the next senator.
Dick Durbin, the state's senior senator, today called for a special election for the spot, saying any candidate named by Blagojevich would be tainted by association with the governor, and would lack credibility. Democrats in the legislature were already making moves to seek impeachment if Blagojevich does not step down from office.
The complaint refers to five unnamed Senate possibilities who have had dealings with Blagojevich. One of them, said to be favored by the Obama camp, refused to give anything to Blagojevich other than "appreciation." Blagojevich was said to have responded, "'Bleep' them," Fitzpatrick said. The prosecutor said there was no evidence that Obama had any knowledge of Blagojevich shopping the open Senate seat for a bidder.
Recent opinion polls have shown that Blagojevich, who turns 52 on Wednesday, has an approval rating of only 13 percent among Illinois voters. His administration has been the target of an investigation of whether state jobs and contracts were illegally traded for contributions, the so-called "pay to play" scheme. According to the complaint, Blagojevich still harbored hopes about overhauling his image and making a run for the Presidency in 2016.
Lieutenant Governor Patrick Quinn, who would fill any vacancy in the governorship, today called on Blagojevich to "step aside," but suggested the step could be something short of resignation. Quinn said state law allows for a governor to be temporarily relieved of duties if performance is "impeded."
Like most prominent Illinois Democrats, Quinn has been regarded as a strong critic of Blagojevich. Jesse Jackson Jr., who met recently with Blagojevich to discuss the Senate job, has also frequently been at odds with the governor. Similarly, Senator Durbin and Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago rarely even try to conceal with frustration with Blagojevich. Even Richard Mell, a Chicago alderman whose daughter, Patti, is married to Blagojevich, is not believed to be on speaking terms with his son-in-law.
Before becoming governor, Blagojevich served as a congressman in the seat subsequently held by Rahm Emanuel, who has been tapped as White House chief of staff by Obama.
In a news conference on Monday, Governor Blagojevich, in a combative stance that seemed almost cocky, issued a challenge to prosecutors. Likening the prosecutor's methods of taping to underhanded behavior of the Nixon administration, the governor nonetheless said he welcomed being recorded.
"I don't care whether you tape me privately or publicly," he said. "I can tell you that whatever I say is always lawful."
Less than 24 hours later, he was under arrest.
Chicago political analyst Paul Green, a professor at Roosevelt University, said Blagojevich's apparent behavior was astonishing, given that he knew he was under scrutiny from the prosecutor's office.
"It's almost more social psychology than politics," he said, "like he was sticking his jaw out and asking everyone to hit him." Green characterized the governor's actions as "putting up a Senate seat on eBay."
The arrest of Blagojevich underscores a history of political corruption in Illinois, a state whose last governor, George Ryan, a Republican, is in federal prison (and petitioning President Bush for clemency). Former governors Otto Kerner, who was elected twice in the 1960s, and Dan Walker, who was in office in the early 1970s, also went to prison.
Robert Grant, the supervising FBI agent on the case, said that if "Illinois is not the most corrupt state" in the nation, "it is a hell of a competitor."
Fitzpatrick said his office acted swiftly because of the potential consequences of Blagojevich's "corruption spree." He said the governor held up millions in funding to Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, awaiting a campaign contribution.
With recent layoffs at the Tribune, which entered bankruptcy on Monday, Fitzgerald said he would "lay awake at night" and "worry about whether the layoffs" included Blagojevich's targets. As it turned out, Mr. Fitzpatrick said the newspaper did not dismiss any employee that the governor's office had sought to remove.
Fitzpatrick said he was stunned by the brazen nature of Blagojevich's behavior, a man who had come into office promoting himself as a great reformer of Illinois politics.
"Abraham Lincoln would be rolling around in his grave," said Fitzpatrick.