On the afternoon of December 8, 2008, dozens of FBI agents and staff members assembled in the bureau’s Chicago office on the Near West Side to make final preparations to arrest one of the most powerful and flamboyant figures in Illinois politics. The two of us were the lead investigators in a public corruption case that started modestly and grew exponentially, branching out to reach some of the state’s most influential political insiders, fundraisers, and, ultimately, the governor’s office. It was all about to culminate early the next morning.
In advance of that, the FBI had set up a command center to coordinate and track all the logistics. Imagine an area about the size of three conference rooms filled with rows of computers, televisions to monitor the news, whiteboards, radio equipment, and dozens of phone lines. Every detail had to be carefully managed and synchronized. During that Monday afternoon meeting, we and other agents were told that we’d receive commands through encrypted transmissions on our radios and coded language on our BlackBerrys for when to initiate arrests and searches and begin interviewing witnesses and suspects.
As veterans of the FBI with more than 20 years each on the job, we’d both had our share of big cases and arrests. But none like this: At dawn we were going to arrest Governor Rod Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris.
The timing was hastier than we had planned. A few days earlier, Tribune reporters had contacted the U.S. attorney’s office after getting a tip that a political insider, a close friend of Blagojevich’s, was cooperating in our investigation. The reporters had also found out that we were secretly recording the governor. The newspaper was planning to run a story.
News of the leak felt like a kick in the gut. So much work had gone into this investigation. We had been meticulously building our case and had succeeded in getting recordings of incriminating conversations of a sitting governor and his close associates. But now we had to scramble because someone couldn’t keep his mouth shut. We badly wanted to find out who it was, but there wasn’t time. Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney, asked the Tribune to hold the story because there were still corrupt deals in the works we wanted to document. Among them was the governor’s interest in receiving campaign contributions in return for appointing Jesse Jackson Jr. to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama.
The Tribune agreed to sit on the story, but only for a limited time. This prompted an urgent meeting at our Chicago office on December 2 to discuss when the arrests should go down. We met with Fitzgerald, his chief deputies, the three assistant U.S. attorneys assigned to prosecute Blagojevich, and Rob Grant, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Chicago office.
We had to act quickly. The Tribune could run its story any day. Once that happened, we feared a cover-up could begin. Fitzgerald was also concerned that Blagojevich would make the Senate appointment before we had a chance to move. If he appointed Jackson, we felt the selection would be tainted because of what we’d heard on the wiretaps. Even if Blagojevich was charged first, the government couldn’t stop him from making the appointment, but he would be doing it under the bright light of public knowledge of our investigation.
So here we were on the eve of the arrest, five years into our investigation and just six weeks after agents had hidden microphones in Blagojevich’s campaign office. Hundreds of hours had been spent monitoring those microphones and the phone taps, conducting other surveillance, and gathering intelligence. The investigation, dubbed Operation Board Games, had involved federal prosecutors and agents and support staff from not just the FBI but also the IRS, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General.
That afternoon, we went over the plan step by step. We would arrest the governor — whom we had code-named Elvis because of his fascination with the King — and Harris early in the morning at their homes, then dispatch agents to conduct interviews with 10 other people who we determined would be key to the investigation. Other agents would conduct searches of Blagojevich’s campaign office on the North Side and Deputy Governor Bob Greenlee’s office at the Thompson Center downtown. Surveillance teams had photographed the homes of Blagojevich and Harris so that we could get a sense of their layouts. We also had agents drive by to get a firsthand look. Members of the interview teams had reviewed witnesses’ files and gone over what questions to ask. We knew preparation was key to this operation going down without a hitch.
A tech-savvy agent provided the arrest and interview teams with audio clips of some of the “greatest hits” of conversations captured on the wiretaps. These were put on agents’ smartphones. Our hope was that those being approached would cooperate once they heard what we had. These included Robert Blagojevich, the governor’s brother; Tom Balanoff, head of the local Service Employees International Union; Deputy Governor Greenlee; Blagojevich’s friend and adviser Doug Scofield; and road construction executive Gerald Krozel.
We got home from the planning session around 10 that night. Our wives both sensed that something major was happening because of the extra hours we’d been putting in, especially during the previous six weeks. We had even missed much of Thanksgiving to listen to wiretaps. The FBI policy that agents can speak in only general terms about our work — even to those closest to us — had been drilled into us, so we shared very little. This understandably caused tension at home at times, as we were glued to our cellphones and checking emails day and night. We did agree, though, to tell our spouses not to miss the news the following day.
Our alarms went off at 2 a.m. We put on suits, as did all the other members of the operation who would have contact with the public. We were tired, but it didn’t matter: Our adrenaline was flowing. At 3:25 a.m., the two of us met in the parking lot of the FBI office in west suburban Lisle and headed into the city. We didn’t talk much in the car. We were both quietly contemplating the significance of what was about to happen and thinking about the scenarios that could unfold during the operation. We were arresting Blagojevich at his home. What if a family member got emotional and the scene turned volatile? What if word had gotten out and reporters were camped outside? What if Blagojevich refused to let us in? Would we have to break down the door of the governor?
At 4 a.m., we met Rob, the special agent in charge, in the basement parking lot of the Chicago office. We all got into Rob’s car and headed to a downtown hotel. There, waiting outside for us, was Chuck Brueggemann, a trusted high-ranking member of the Illinois State Police, the agency in charge of the governor’s security detail. The officers assigned to protect Blagojevich had no idea what was about to happen. Chuck had already been briefed and would serve as our liaison with them. This was critical. The last thing we needed was a standoff with the governor’s security detail in front of his house.
At 4:45 a.m., we arrived at the Golden Nugget Pancake House at the corner of Irving Park Road and Sawyer Avenue to meet with Roy Sanji, the state police lieutenant in charge of Blagojevich’s security detail. We sat in a back booth so we could talk in private. Chuck introduced us to Roy, and the team briefed him on what was about to happen. Although he was a veteran officer, we could see the shock on his face.
We discussed the plan and agreed that Chuck would be there to tell the security detail to stand down when we arrived. Roy mentioned that there was an Illinois State Police operation center near the governor’s residence that had one of the state’s “red phones,” which are to be used in the event of state emergencies. We figured that if we called the governor on it, he would have to answer. The team agreed that Rob would use it to tell Blagojevich that FBI agents were outside his door with a warrant to arrest him.
We were bringing with us an agent named Kathy, who was trained as a hostage negotiator; we thought it would be good to have someone experienced in dealing with emotionally charged situations. We also had three SWAT-trained agents we knew and trusted, dressed in business attire, to deal with unforeseen disruptions, like interference from a bystander. As we sat in the restaurant, Rob used a napkin to sketch the final staging for the arrest, detailing the layout of the streets and the alley around the house and indicating how our car would pull into the driveway and how the one carrying the SWAT agents would take the spot that would soon be vacated by the security detail.
By 6 a.m., we were parked outside the governor’s home in Ravenswood Manor, a quiet neighborhood on the Northwest Side. It was cloudy, with light rain falling. As Roy placed a call to the residence on the red phone, we walked to the front door. The phone rang a couple of dozen times without anyone answering. Roy then dialed the residential line, and someone picked up. Roy said he had an urgent matter for the governor.
When Blagojevich got on the line, Roy handed the phone over to Rob, who identified himself as the head of the FBI’s Chicago office and said the agency had a warrant for the governor’s arrest. Agents, he said, were waiting outside the front door, and he asked Blagojevich to let them in. The governor had about five minutes to open the door, Rob told him, or the agents would force their way in. That was a last resort, he added: The FBI did not want to cause a commotion or wake the children.
“Is this a joke?” Blagojevich asked.
“No, I assure you that it’s not a joke,” Rob replied.
Blagojevich said he needed to make some phone calls and hung up. Rob immediately called back, and Blagojevich’s wife, Patti, answered. Rob asked to speak with the governor, and she put him on. Once more, Rob explained who he was and why FBI agents were in front of the house and that the governor needed to let us in before we forced our way in. Blagojevich again told Rob that he needed to call someone and hung up.
We stood outside the door and waited. Dan rang the doorbell several times. Patti, wearing a robe, finally answered and allowed us inside. She looked more irritated than startled. We saw the governor standing on the stairs, dressed in a T-shirt and running pants, and talking on the phone. (He later said the person he was talking to was Bill Quinlan, his general counsel.) We identified ourselves as FBI agents and explained that we had a warrant for his arrest.
Blagojevich turned around and walked up to his second-floor bedroom. We quickly followed, while Kathy remained with Patti. As we entered the bedroom, we saw that one of Blagojevich’s daughters was sleeping in her parents’ bed. Blagojevich continued to talk on the phone. We whispered to him to hang up. He continued talking, so Pat grabbed the phone and hung it up for him. The governor did not seem to be grasping the gravity of the situation.
We kept talking in whispered tones because we did not want to wake the children. Once again, we announced that we had a warrant for his arrest and told Blagojevich that he needed to get dressed and come with us. He asked to use the bathroom, and we said OK. He closed the door, which made us uneasy. It’s never good to let an arrestee out of your sight, even if he’s the governor.
After a couple of minutes, Dan knocked on the door and told Blagojevich that we needed to go. He came out with a toothbrush in his mouth. We repeated that he needed to get dressed right away and come with us.
The governor picked out a blue Nike jogging suit, white socks, and running shoes to wear. As we prepared to leave, he turned and asked: “How does my hair look?”
“You look fine,” we told him, astonished by the question. It was as if he were preparing for a press conference. As we brought him downstairs, his daughters remained asleep, for which we were grateful. You never want a child to witness a parent being arrested.
In a calm tone, Kathy explained to Patti that her husband would be taken to the FBI office. Once there, he would be photographed and fingerprinted, as standard procedure, and later he’d be taken to the federal courthouse downtown. Kathy suggested to Patti that she find someone to watch her daughters if she planned to go to court. While Kathy was talking with Patti, we could hear one of the girls calling for her mother. Patti swiftly headed upstairs, with Kathy following. Patti started to close the bedroom door behind her, but Kathy stopped her, explaining that she would have to step inside with her and that she did not want to alarm Patti’s daughter. So from the doorway Patti persuaded her daughter to go back to sleep. Then Patti and Kathy came back downstairs.
As the Blagojeviches stood in the kitchen, they acted as if they couldn’t believe what was happening. We pulled out a copy of the arrest warrant to show them. They noticed John Harris’s name on it and asked if he was being arrested, too. We said yes. Patti suggested her husband change into a suit. We told her there was not enough time but that she could have clothes brought to him before he went to court.
Not wanting to draw the attention of neighbors or reporters that might be outside, we asked about the most discreet route to our car, which was in the driveway, toward the rear of the corner lot house. Blagojevich told us to go out the back door and through the fenced backyard. Before walking out to the car, Dan took out his handcuffs.
“Do you have to handcuff me?” Blagojevich asked.
“Yes, that’s FBI policy,” Dan said.
But to avoid further humiliating the governor, Dan cuffed his hands in front of him rather than behind his back, as is traditionally done. He did not consider Blagojevich a risk for fleeing.
We escorted the governor through the backyard to our car, where Rob was waiting. Pat and Rob sat in front; Dan and Blagojevich sat in back. In the car, we told the governor why he was being arrested. We explained that the charges were related to the manner in which he was conducting his selection for the vacant Senate seat and to evidence that he was providing official state action for personal benefit.
Blagojevich immediately told us he wanted to assert his right to an attorney. We knew then that the prospect of getting him to cooperate was slim. Several times, he started to talk, and we cautioned him not to discuss matters under investigation. At that point, we didn’t want to taint any information he might share without his attorney present.
“Have you ever arrested a governor before?” he asked. We found the question so odd that we did not respond.
While we had been dealing with Blagojevich, the order had gone out for other FBI agents to arrest John Harris at his house on the Northwest Side. About 25 minutes later, David Bray, the lead agent on that arrest, sent us a text message saying that Harris had not requested an attorney. He had not said anything substantive yet, but agents were already building a rapport with him. When his home phone had rung during the arrest, Harris had told his wife to lift the receiver and hang it back up so that he and the agents would not be disturbed. We took all this as a sign that he might cooperate. He was now en route to the FBI office.
We arrived at the office with the governor just before 7 a.m. While still in the car, we got another text from David, saying Harris had still not asked for an attorney and was continuing to chat with agents. David did not want Harris bumping into the governor for fear of losing his cooperation. Dan forwarded the message to Rob, who got the word out to keep Harris and Blagojevich separate.
Once inside, we took Blagojevich to the booking area, where he was photographed and fingerprinted. He asked for a bottle of water, which we gave him. Afterward, we walked him over to an interview room and offered him some food and coffee. He declined food but wanted coffee. Pat stepped out to get it, as well as an update from the command post. When he returned, he was startled to see Blagojevich running up and down the hallway in the booking area, apparently to burn off nervous energy. Dan told him he had better not run out the door because he didn’t want to have to chase him. But there was nowhere for the governor to go: The door was locked.
At Blagojevich’s request, Dan contacted the governor’s personal attorney, Shelly Sorosky, who had already heard about the arrest. Blagojevich talked with his attorney and relayed to us that he would be there in 45 minutes. While waiting, Blagojevich appeared hyperactive, though not agitated or particularly upset, continuing to run up and down the hallway and in place. He was congenial and wanted to chat, but we limited the conversation to small talk.
Just after 9 a.m., Sorosky was allowed inside the booking area to see Blagojevich. Soon Mike Monico, a prominent Chicago defense attorney, also arrived, insisting that he speak with Blagojevich. Monico represented Chris Kelly, a top fundraiser and close friend of Blagojevich who faced his own set of corruption charges. (Nine months later, after pleading guilty, Kelly would commit suicide days before he was to report to prison.) Monico tried to bully his way into seeing Blagojevich and Harris, but both men declined.
At 10:25 a.m., Sorosky allowed us to discuss our investigation with his client. We told Blagojevich not to talk but just to listen to what we had to say. We told him straight up that we were looking for his cooperation. We repeated the charges filed against him. We mentioned that both his brother and his wife were recorded on the wiretaps. We told him that we could tell from his conversations he cared about his family and that he should think about them in making his next decisions.
He had no visible reaction, which struck us as strange. We then offered to play some clips from the wiretaps so he could hear himself and them, hoping that might jar him into reality and trigger his cooperation. Sorosky asked to confer privately with his client, so we stepped out of the interview room. After 25 minutes, Sorosky called us back in and said they did not wish to hear the recordings and that his client did not wish to provide any information.
About that time, we got word that Patti had arranged to drop off a suit for her husband for his court appearance. After speaking to his attorney, Blagojevich told us that he did not want to wear it. He would go in his jogging suit. A short time later, at 11:30 a.m., we took him to the federal court building in an SUV. News crews were set up outside. Blagojevich told us he did not want to be caught on camera as we took him into the building. We did what we could to respect his wishes by trying to shield him from view. Once inside, we turned him over to the U.S. marshals, who were in charge of his custody.
At 1:30 p.m., we accompanied a couple of marshals as they escorted Blagojevich, still wearing his jogging suit and running shoes, to U.S. magistrate judge Nan Nolan’s courtroom. The governor recognized an assistant U.S. attorney, Carrie Hamilton, from having met her at a function. He walked over and shook her hand as if he were campaigning. He continued to carry on in the courtroom as if at some fundraising event. In contrast, Harris, in a suit and tie, acted very formal and subdued. Their appearance and behavior were as different as the paths they would later choose to take. Judge Nolan ordered Blagojevich to surrender his passport within 24 hours and allowed his release on $4,500 bond.
From the moment we went inside the governor’s home that morning, we made every effort to be as courteous and straightforward with him as possible. We hoped that treating him with respect and dignity might pay off with his cooperation down the road. The same approach seemed to be working with Harris.
On our way home, we got word from one of the agents that the initial public reaction to the arrests was positive. He heard the FBI being described as “heroic” on a local radio station and praised for doing something few people thought would ever happen: arresting a sitting governor.
Rod Blagojevich was found guilty on 18 counts, including wire fraud, attempted extortion, and conspiracy to solicit bribes. He was sentenced to 14 years. Five counts were later dropped on appeal, though his sentence was not reduced. He is serving his time at a federal prison near Littleton, Colorado. He is expected to be released in 2024.
John Harris pleaded guilty to a single count of wire fraud and agreed to testify against Blagojevich. He received a 10-day sentence.
Authors’ note: The opinions expressed in this article are ours and not those of the FBI.