Arrested, the governor who tried to sell Obama's seat

Democrat 'solicited bribes from Senate hopefuls'
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The Independent US

A sensational political corruption scandal erupted in Chicago yesterday when the state Democratic governor, Rod Blagojevich, was arrested after allegedly trying to sell the Senate seat of the President-elect, Barack Obama.

"I want to make money," the Illinois governor told an associate the day after Mr Obama was elected President, according to a 76-page federal indictment unsealed yesterday.

Mr Blagojevich, who was arrested at dawn, was accused of trying to trade his right as governor to name the next US senator in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars, a US ambassadorship or an appointment to Mr Obama's cabinet as Health or Energy Secretary.

"I've got this thing and it's [expletive] golden, and, uh, uh, I'm just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing," he told an adviser on his home phone as he was secretly recorded. He added later that the seat "is a [expletive] valuable thing, you just don't give it away for nothing. I'm not gonna do it."

Mr Blagojevich also allegedly talked about getting his wife, Patti, placed on a corporate board.

The FBI recordings reveal that he had discussions with several potential candidates. The federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who has previously tangled with members of the Bush administration, described the governor's activities as "a political corruption crime spree" on overdrive.

He accused Mr Blagojevich of running schemes where he demanded financial kickbacks from people seeking business with the state government. "The breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering," Mr Fitzgerald said. "They allege that Blagojevich put a 'for sale' sign on the naming of a United States senator; involved himself personally in pay-to-play schemes with the urgency of a salesman meeting his annual sales target; and corruptly used his office in an effort to trample editorial voices of criticism."

Under Illinois law, it is the governor's job to appoint a replacement for an empty Senate seat between elections.

Mr Blagojevich is already under a spotlight for corruption. He has never been close to Mr Obama, who went to some lengths to distance himself from the mop-haired governor during the election campaign. But in Chicago's murky world of Democratic politics, both men found themselves linked by association to the corrupt Chicago developer Tony Rezko. Already convicted, Rezko is now co-operating with the authorities in return for leniency.

On Sunday, Mr Obama referred to unspecified political difficulties in filling his Senate seat without going into details. Whether he was aware of the federal investigation into the sale of the seat was not clear yesterday, but Mr Fitzgerald said the indictment makes "absolutely no allegations against the President-elect".

On hearing news of the investigation Mr Obama said he was "saddened and sobered" by the allegations. He added: "I have had no contact with the governor or his office. I was not aware this was happening."

Mr Blagojevich, who is Serbian-American, also allegedly demanded the resignation of the editorial board of the now-bankrupt Chicago Tribune in return for assistance with the sale of Wrigley Field, the city's major sports stadium that the paper's holding company owns. The Tribune has been critical of Mr Blagojevich.

The stench of corruption has rarely been far from the surface in America's second city. Three of the last seven governors have been swept up in scandals. Mr Blagojevich's predecessor, the Republican George Ryan, is serving six-and-a-half years in prison for accepting bribes to hand out truck drivers' licences, a scheme that was exposed when four children died in a crash.

Mr Blagojevich has long enjoyed a reputation for skating close to the edge of legality but his alleged attempt to enrich himself seemed particularly incompetent, especially as he was already under investigation by Mr Fitzgerald, one of the most aggressive anti-corruption prosecutors who has tangled with the Bush administration in some high-profile cases.

Mr Blagojevich's chief of staff, John Harris, was also taken into custody. Mr Blagojevich was charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and solicitation of bribery.