Illinois governor held for trying to sell Obama’s senate seat (Lead)

December 10th, 2008 - 6:09 pm ICT by IANS  

Barack ObamaChicago, Dec 10 (IANS) Federal authorities arrested the governor of Illinois, Barack Obama’s home state, on charges of trying to sell the president-elect’s senate seat, plunging the incoming administration into a political crisis even before it has taken office.But within hours of his arrest Tuesday Rod R. Blagojevich, the man who has the sole authority under the state constitution to fill Obama’s seat for the rest of his term, which runs through 2010, was back in the governor’s mansion enlarged on a bail of a paltry $4,500 and his prerogative very much intact.

The arrest threw a cloud over the process of replacing Obama in the Senate. Unless Blagojevich is convicted, impeached or admits guilt of an “infamous crime”, he will retain that power, said a lawyer with the State Board of Elections.

If Blagojevich were to resign or be removed from office, that power would fall to Democratic Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn, who called on the governor to “do the right thing” and “step aside”.

The development came after a five-year-long investigation, which involved extensive deployment of listening devices in the governor’s office and home.

Blagojevich, a Democrat, and his chief of staff John Harris were charged with soliciting bribes and conspiracy to commit mail fraud. They also are accused of trying to blackmail the Chicago Tribune newspaper and exchange official actions for campaign contributions.

A criminal complaint and 76-page affidavit detail what US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald called “a political corruption crime spree” spanning years of “pay to play” conduct that accelerated in recent months in advance of a new state ethics law scheduled to take effect Jan 1.

He said the complaint “makes no allegations about the president-elect or his conduct”.

Blagojevich’s attorney seemed to play down the arrest and release on a $4,500 cash bond.

“He didn’t do anything wrong,” attorney Sheldon Sorosky told reporters after Blagojevich was arraigned. “A lot of this is just politics.”

Asked if the governor would resign, he said: “Not that I know of, no.”

Obama said, “I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so I was not aware of what was happening… It is a sad day for Illinois. Beyond that I don’t think it’s appropriate to comment.”

The affidavit says Blagojevich was overheard trying to sell or trade Obama’s Senate seat in exchange for money or other considerations for himself and his wife.

Blagojevich discussed securing a job with a high salary at a nonprofit foundation or a union-affiliated organisation, places for his wife on corporate boards, campaign funds, a Cabinet position or an ambassadorship.

He had hoped Obama would help him secure a position, and was overheard discussing ways of putting pressure on the president-elect to obtain what he wanted in exchange for appointing a favoured candidate, described as “Senate Candidate No. 1″ to his seat, the affidavit said.

Blagojevich also was overheard mulling the option of naming himself to the Senate seat, in part to position himself against impeachment or an indictment.

“Their conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave,” Fitzgerald said.

“I’ve got this thing and it’s [expletive] golden and, uh, uh, I’m just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing. I’m not gonna do it. And, and I can always use it. I can parachute me in there,” the wiretaps picked up Blagojevich saying on Nov 5, the day after the election, according to the affidavit.

Blagojevich and Harris also are accused of trying to force the Tribune Co., which owns the Chicago Tribune, to fire members of the newspaper’s editorial board - which had been critical of Blagojevich - in exchange for state assistance in securing financing for the sale of the Wrigley Field baseball stadium.

The governor’s administration has been under federal investigation since 2003 as part of “Operation Board Game”, a probe of public corruption in Illinois. The affidavit accuses Blagojevich of conspiring since 2002 to corruptly trade the powers of his office for personal and financial gain.

Illinois has a reputation of extraordinary political corruption. George Ryan, the immediate predecessor to Blagojevich, is serving a prison term on charges of racketeering and fraud since 2006. While the 51-year-old Blagojevich is a Democrat, Ryan was a Republican.

Blagojevich is the fifth of the last nine Illinois governors to face federal charges. Four were convicted and went to prison. One was acquitted.

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