Obama calls for sleaze governor to go

President-elect 'saddened' by plight of former ally
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The Independent US

The President-elect Barack Obama called for the head of Rod Blagojevich yesterday as he moved to distance his incoming administration from the stench of corruption surrounding allegations the Illinois governor offered to sell Mr Obama's Senate seat.

Jesse Jackson Jr, an Illinois congressman, became the latest big name to be sucked into the scandal after he was named as the mysterious Candidate 5 who crops up in FBI wiretaps. According to the FBI affadavit, the governor brags that an associate of Candidate 5 was offering $1m to secure the seat. Mr Jackson, the son of the civil rights leader, who acknowledged meeting Mr Blagojevich for 90 minutes on Monday, angrily denied any wrongdoing

"I did not initiate or authorise anyone at any time to promise anything to Governor Blagojevich on my behalf," he said. "I never sent a message or an emissary to the governor to make an offer, to plead my case or to propose a deal about a US Senate seat, period." Mr Obama's political enemies are already sharpening their knives over the scandal. When Mr Blagojevich's alleged attempt to profit from the appointment of the next senator for Illinois was revealed on Tuesday, Mr Obama said he was "saddened and sobered" by the news. The President-elect had stopped short of demanding the governor step down but yesterday his incoming press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said that Mr Obama wanted his former political ally to resign.

Given the 76-page federal complaint, Mr Obama believed it was "difficult for the governor to effectively do his job and serve the people of Illinois", Mr Gibbs said. It remains to be seen how Mr Obama thinks his successor to the Senate should be picked.

There is no known evidence linking Mr Obama to the allegations around Mr Blagojevich, who is refusing to quit his post, but the many connections between the political worlds of the two Democrats are a distraction as the President-elect prepares to take office.

What might have been viewed as a colourful tale of corruption from a state where four governors have been jailed in the past 40 years now threatens to embroil key members of the presidential transition team and test Mr Obama's reformist image.

The scandal is a gift for Republicans, who will use it to tarnish Mr Obama's reformist brand in his first 100 days in office. The honeymoon period, during which the new president hoped to push through much of his reform agenda, may be shorter as a result.

During the election campaign, John McCain tried to link Mr Obama to the systemic corruption of Chicago's politicians, Mr Blagojevich included. But the charges were ignored amid the euphoria of Mr Obama's bid to be the first African-American president.

Mr Obama and Mr Blagojevich were connected to Tony Rezko, who has been convicted of fraud, money laundering and bribery. He was a fundraiser for both men and helped Mr Obama obtain his house in Chicago by agreeing to buy the corner garden.

Even though Mr Rezko was already known to be under federal investigation at the time of the purchase, Mr Obama sidestepped that political landmine by asserting he paid a fair price.

The complaint against Mr Blagojevich has shocked observers of Chicago's political scene. The danger for Mr Obama is that almost all his inner circle is linked to Chicago politics, including his top political adviser, David Axelrod, his friend Valerie Jarrett and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Mr Axelrod boasts on his political consultancy website that he represented Mr Blagojevich when he first ran for office.

There was a time when Mr Obama and Mr Axelrod held weekly meetings with Mr Blagojevich. The relationship grew cold however and the newly elected governor was soon attracting the attention of Patrick Fitzgerald, America's top federal investigator who has an Elliot Ness-like reputation for rooting out political corruption.

Since 2004 there have been allegations that the governor was running a "pay to play" operation, soliciting bribes from those bidding on contracts for everything from pizzerias at motorway rest stops to concrete for roads. At least 13 people around the state government have been indicted or convicted. Even his wife was implicated.

But analysts say this is the way business has been done in Illinois for 100 years, with nearly a quarter of all governors in that time indicted or convicted of felonies. Mr Blagojevich was elected on a do-gooder ticket and said he was going to clean up the corruption of his predecessor, George Ryan, who is serving a six-and-a-half-year jail term for racketeering and fraud.

Criminal record: Illinois' hall of shame

* Governor George Ryan (1999-2003) A Republican, and Mr Blagojevich's predecessor, he was convicted in 2006 for offering contracts to insiders and helping cover bribes paid for truck licences. He is serving six and a half years.

* Governor Dan Walker (1973-77) The last Democratic governor before Mr Blagojevich, he served a year and a half after pleading guilty in 1987 to bank fraud and perjury.

* Governor Otto Kerner (1961-68), a Democrat, he was convicted in 1973 of bribery, conspiracy and perjury relating to a for a horse-racing racket, and sentenced to three years, but served less than a year.

* Governor Lennington Small (1921-29), a Republican, he was indicted for embezzlement while in office, then later acquitted – but a number of jurors ended up with state jobs.