Governor accused of trying to sell Obama seat

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The Independent US

The governor of Illinois "put a for-sale sign on the naming of a United States senator" to fill the vacant seat left by president-elect Barack Obama, US authorities said today.

Rod Blagojevich, governor of Mr Obama's home state of Illinois, was taken into US federal custody today on charges of conspiring to sell or trade the vacant Senate seat for personal benefits for himself and his wife, Patti.

"I want to make money," Mr Blagojevich allegedly said, during one conversation monitored by FBI agents.

Mr Blagojevich, 51, was arrested on charges of conspiring to get financial benefits through his authority to appoint a US senator to fill the vacancy left by Mr Obama's election as president.

US Attorney Patrick J Fitzgerald said in a statement that "the breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering".

"They allege that Blagojevich put a for-sale sign on the naming of a United States senator," Mr Fitzgerald said.

According to the federal criminal complaint, Mr Blagojevich was also charged with illegally threatening to withhold state assistance to Tribune Co, the owner of the Chicago Tribune which filed for chapter 11 protection yesterday, unless members of the paper's editorial board who had been critical of him were fired.

Among those being considered for the Senate post are US Representatives Danny Davis and Jesse Jackson Jr.

A 76-page FBI affidavit said the Democratic governor was intercepted on court-authorised wiretaps over the past month.

Mr Blagojevich discussed getting campaign funds for himself or possibly a post in the president's cabinet or an ambassadorship once he left the governor's office.

He also allegedly discussed getting a substantial salary for himself at a non-profit foundation or an organisation affiliated with labour unions.

It also said Mr Blagojevich talked about getting his wife placed on corporate boards where she might earn 150,000 dollars (£101,000) a year in director's fees.

Mr Blagojevich was also charged with using his authority as governor in an attempt to squeeze out campaign contributions.

His chief of staff, John Harris, was arrested as well.

FBI spokesman Frank Bochte said federal agents arrested the governor and Harris simultaneously at their homes at 6.15am CT (12.15pm GMT) and took them to the Chicago FBI headquarters.

Mr Bochte said he did not know if either man was handcuffed or if the governor's family was at their North Side home at the time of his arrest.

He added that both Mr Blagojevich and Mr Harris were given time to get dressed before being taken to the headquarters.

Mr Bochte said he did not have any details about Mr Blagojevich's arrest, only that he was cooperative with federal agents.

"It was a very calm setting," he said

According to the affidavit, agents learned Mr Blagojevich was seeking 2.5 million dollars (£1.7 million) in campaign contributions by the end of the year, with a large part allegedly to come from companies and individuals who have got state contracts or appointments.

Corruption in the Blagojevich administration has been the focus of a federal investigation involving an alleged seven million dollar (£4.7 million) scheme aimed at squeezing kickbacks out of companies seeking business from the state.

Federal prosecutors also acknowledged they were investigating "serious allegations of endemic hiring fraud" under Mr Blagojevich.

Political fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who raised money for the campaigns of both Mr Blagojevich and Mr Obama, is awaiting sentencing after being convicted of fraud and other charges.

And Mr Blagojevich's chief fundraiser, Christopher G Kelly, is due to stand trial early next year on charges of obstructing the Internal Revenue Service.

According to the complaint filed today, Mr Blagojevich schemed with Rezko, millionaire-fundraiser turned federal witness Stuart Levine, and others to get financial benefits for himself and his campaign committee.

Federal prosecutors said Mr Blagojevich and the chairman of his campaign committee have been speeding up corrupt fundraising activities in the last month to get as much money as possible before the end of the year when a new law would curtail his ability to raise contributions from companies with state contracts worth more than 50,000 dollars (£33,850).

Mr Blagojevich took the chief executive's office in 2003 as a reformer promising to clean up former Governor George Ryan's mess.

Ryan, a Republican, is serving a six-year prison sentence after being convicted on racketeering and fraud charges.

A decade-long investigation began with the sale of driver's licenses for bribes and led to the conviction of dozens of people who worked for Ryan when he was secretary of state and governor.

Later, Mr Fitzgerald said Mr Blagojevich had been caught in the middle of a "political corruption crime spree".

The US Attorney said the allegations marked a "truly new low" and a "sad day for government".

He said the governor's attempt to sell the Senate seat was the "most appalling conduct" contained in the allegations.