From our February 2008 issue: Rod Blagojevich was something of a golden boy when he became the governor of Illinois—a young, charismatic champion of change with powerful backers and presidential aspirations. Now he may be the most unpopular governor in the country. A look at how things fell so completely apart
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GOVERNOR SUNSHINE >>
A more compelling explanation for the governor's escalating antics may be the pressure he is feeling from three years of federal probes into allegations that his top aides traded state business and jobs for political support for Blagojevich.
In October 2006, Antoin Rezko, a North Shore businessman who was a close friend and adviser to the governor, was charged with seeking to extort millions of dollars from investment firms looking to do business with Blagojevich's administration. The feds have argued that Rezko sought kickbacks to the governor's campaign funds and money for himself. Stuart Levine, another politically connected businessman whom Blagojevich reappointed to the state teachers' retirement system and hospital oversight boards, and Joseph Cari Jr., a once prominent lawyer and Democratic fundraiser, admitted to being part of the scheme, which U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has called "pay-to-play on steroids."
Thus far, the governor has not been accused of any wrongdoing and has called the accusations "triple hearsay." In late December, however, court documents filed by prosecutors in preparation for Rezko's February trial place Blagojevich close to the alleged pay-to-play schemes. According to the 78-page summary of evidence filing, "Public Official A"—widely believed to be Blagojevich—told Levine and Cari, in separate conversations, that he could get them state business in exchange for campaign donations. "You stick with us and you will do very well for yourself," Blagojevich was quoted as telling Levine, who is cooperating with the prosecutors in the Rezko case. Prosecutors allege that the governor also suggested to Cari that he "could award contracts, legal work, and investment banking to help with fundraising."
Also in December, another key friend and fundraiser for the governor, Christopher Kelly, a South Side roofer, was indicted on 12 counts of tax evasion related to his roofing business, which has received lucrative state and city contracts. Kelly insists he is innocent, and he has not been charged in the federal corruption probe of the governor's administration. But federal prosecutors are continuing to look into whether Rezko and Kelly traded jobs and appointments for campaign contributions to Blagojevich.
In another indictment arising from the federal corruption probe, P. Nicholas Hurtgen, a former investment banker, allegedly told the CEO of a hospital that "Public Official A" (Blagojevich) wanted hospital projects steered to a preferred contractor as a reward for a political contribution. It was "all about the money," the official allegedly said. The governor's former inspector general, Zaldwaynaka "Z" Scott, condemned Blagojevich's hiring practices in a 2004 report, saying his administration's efforts to skirt state hiring laws reflected "not merely an ignorance of the law, but complete and utter contempt for the law." Scott's report charged that Blagojevich's patronage chief, Joe Cini, who is also under federal scrutiny, rigged job descriptions and credentials that allowed him to place applicants in jobs that were, by law, supposed to be free of political influence.
And according to news reports, investigators have also widened their probe into the governor's personal life. They have been looking into the mysterious $1,500 check that Blagojevich's longtime friend Michael Ascaridis gave to the governor's then seven-year-old daughter, Amy, right around the time Ascaridis's wife received a state job. The U.S. attorney's office is also reportedly looking into Patti Blagojevich's questionable real-estate deals with big contributors to her husband and state contractors. The First Lady, who has been a licensed real-estate broker and appraiser for 15 years, has received more than $200,000, by the Tribune's count, from key political supporters, fundraisers, and state contractors. Two of them, Rezko and Anita Mahajan—who owned a now-defunct drug-testing company that allegedly bilked the state of $2 million—have been indicted.
Over the years Blagojevich has claimed—sometimes indignantly—that he has done nothing wrong. He blames the scandals on "a few bad apples who violated the rules" and who deceived him. But many observers aren't buying Blagojevich's professed cluelessness.
Several people speculate that Blagojevich had been well aware, early on, of the shenanigans taking place inside his administration. "I don't think Rod wanted to know the details," says Mell. He adds, "I'm not saying they did anything illegal. I'm saying it might look illegal."
Most people say that even if Blagojevich is being truthful about not knowing of any wrongdoing, he should have known enough to keep his fundraisers out of the governor's office. Blagojevich, says Fritchey, "had at his disposal some very good policy people. They didn't become his inner circle; his fundraisers did. At that point, all bets are off." For much of Blagojevich's gubernatorial tenure, his inner circle has consisted of fundraisers/friends, such as Kelly and Rezko, as well as a small coterie of former campaign advisers turned lobbyists. Kelly and Rezko, for example, vetted candidates for state jobs, often top administration posts. Coincidentally they raised millions from the appointees.
The Democratic fundraiser and former friend of the governor's says other longtime political fundraisers were shocked that Kelly, in particular, had such a prominent role in the governor's administration: "Who was this guy? Suddenly he's chairman of the finance committee. It's like he dropped out of the sky."
The governor's defenders say he was duped. "There's a lot of deception in this business, and you gotta be real careful who you surround yourself with," says DeLeo. Still, says a former senior staffer in the governor's office, Blagojevich, Kelly, and Rezko were "in touch every waking minute. Proving it in a court of law is another thing."