Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bad Democrat, Bad

Elizabeth Brackett. Pay to Play: How Rod Blagojevich Turned Political Corruption into a National Sideshow. Chicago: Ivan R. Doe, 2009.

The author writes that aides to Governor Rod Blagojevich sought to financially gain from people desiring Gubernatorial appointments. This became a norm that continued through an attempt to make a financial deal for a vacant U.S. Senate seat. These deals have led to the indictment of Rod Blagojevich.

Blagojevich is seen as someone who enjoyed the political game yet did not like holding office. He took a populist approach to politics where he reached out to voters. Yet he failed to make connections with other office holders that might have helped him advance a governing agenda. Thus he had few political allies when his troubles developed. The State Senate impeached him by 59 to 0.

There were allegations that Gubernatorial appointments improperly went to campaign contributors. The Governor’s father in law was among those making the charges. The FBI wiretapped Blagojevich and overheard him declaring he wanted something in return for his U.S. Senate appointment. He was also recorded stating he wanted campaign contributions in return for state-awarded contracts and employment, which is known as “pay to play”.

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzpatrick led an investigation into public corruption. Robert Grant of the FBI declared “if Illinois isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States, it’s certainly one hell of a competitor.” Illinois politics has historic roots in corruption. The previous Governor George Ryan was convicted of corruption. It was surprising to the author that the new Governor similarly acted in a corrupt manner, especially as numerous local officials were also convicted for improperly making political hires, and it was thought that should send a warning to others.

A single information claimed Blagojevich had been a bookie while also serving as a state’s attorney. Blagojevich and the local bookie’s street tax collector both denied this. That statute of limitations had passed and the matter was not pursued.

Blagojevich worked in office of his father in law, Alderman Richard Mell. The U.S. Attorney’s office investigated whether employees such as Blagojevich were ghost employees. No charges resulted. Ethics charges were brought against Blagojevich for allegedly representing personal legal clients before the city government for which he worked. The Rules Committee, chaired by Alderman Mell, dismissed the charges.

Blagojevich was elected to the state legislature. He seemed disinterested in the work of a legislator as he often had to be requested to appear for critical votes and he seldom attended committee meetings. He was elected to Congress where he was little involved in the legislative process sponsoring just one bill that became law.

Blagojevich ran for Governor. Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, brother of Chicago Mayor Dick Daley, was a leading possible candidate. Dick Mell circulated an allegation that Daley had a conflict of interest difficulty. Daley did not run. Blagojevich ran as a reformer and was elected.

Blagojevich had Christopher Kelly, who owned a construction company that conducted business with the state, as a fundraiser. He raised large contributions from enterprises that also did business with the state. The word was spread that “pay to play”, a process where contracts would be awarded to campaign contributors, would continue in Illinois. The FBI was investigating illegal contract deals.

Governor Blagojevich criticized House Speaker Mike Madigan for allocating $1.6 million for a private livestock exhibition. Blagojevich and Madigan did not get along from then on. Madigan was expert in the details of the legislative process while Blagojevich remained disinterested. The state budget faced a $5 billion deficit that led to much feuding between the Governor’s office and the legislature.

Blagejovich seldom went to his office as Governor. He declined to move into the Governor’s mansion. He left most of the operational control to aides.

Blagojevich severed his ties with his father in law. Some advisors thought the association with an old time politician could harm his future career. Blagojevich has state environmental regulators close a landfill that Mell worked for as a consultant. A further investigation found the landfill was operating properly and it was reopened.

Mell turned on Blagojevich and accused his administration of requesting $50,000 contributions in return for commission appointments. While Mell took back the allegations, they drew the attention of the U.S. Attorney and the state Attorney General.

The FBI tapes indicate Blagojevich was seeing what he could receive in return for nominating different people to a vacant U.S. Senate seat. It was discussed he could receive a position after serving as Governor paying $250,0000 if he nominated Valerie Jarrett. He would then work with Jarrett and this organization on health care issues. A key issue of his as Governor. Jarrett removed herself from consideration. Blagojevich wanted to know if U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. would raise a million dollars for Blagojevich’s political funds. The FBI arrested Blagojevich at this point.

The FBI tapes also indicate a Blagojevich aide and Blagojevich’s brother asked for a $50,000 donation to the Blagojevich campaign from a children’s hospital executive in return for $8 million in state funds to be given to physicians. Other tapes indicated alleged shakedowns of campaign contributions from horseracing executives in return for almost $30 million in return for campaign contributors.

Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office.


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