(page 3 of 5)
The new fundraising darling quickly made his mark among those close to Blagojevich, hauling in astonishing sums for the election and reelection efforts. But to the media, this suddenly influential member of Blagojevich’s “kitchen cabinet” was little more than a name. “Chris Kelly and Tony Rezko [the political fundraiser and real-estate developer convicted on several counts of fraud and bribery in 2008] were part of the shadow cabinet—and I mean the shadow cabinet literally and figuratively—of Rod Blagojevich,” says Andy Shaw, who covered Springfield for ABC-7 Chicago for 26 years before leaving to become the executive director of the Better Government Association. “They operated in the background, playing such an intense level of hardball when it came to fundraising that they didn’t want any kind of exposure—they wanted no trail if possible.”
Bob Arya, the former Blagojevich adviser, noticed the same phenomenon. “If you look through photo archives of the Sun-Times and Tribune,” he says, “you won’t find many pictures of Chris [before his later legal troubles]. Go through the video archives of the television stations in town. You won’t find a lot of footage of Chris.”
Shaw recalls that when Kelly stepped into the spotlight as master of ceremonies for Blagojevich’s January 2003 inaugural party, giving a few remarks to open the event, “he surprised a lot of us. I think many of us hadn’t really seen Chris Kelly before. Here was somebody who was well known by name but not by persona.”
Today the early media descriptions of Kelly—his style, his modus operandi—seem naive. David Wilhelm, the veteran political strategist who chaired the 2002 Blagojevich campaign, told Crain’s Chicago Business in 2003 that Kelly didn’t go in for the hard sell. The secret to Kelly’s success, he said, was “part cheerleading, combined with great follow-through.”
“[Kelly] never had any hidden agenda,” added Douglas Scofield, former deputy governor, in the same article. “I never felt he had an agenda other than to help Rod.” (Scofield did not return calls from Chicago, and Wilhelm declined an interview request.)
Others who knew and worked with Kelly saw him as a far more sinister character. “He was kind of a crass bully and a blowhard,” says a current member of the Springfield legislature. “He seemed to be fascinated by politics and fancied himself as a big political thinker and player. To me, he was a heavy-handed braggart. I think he thought he was the power behind the throne.”
The former senior aide agrees. “He was very bull-in-a-china-shop, very opinionated, very loud, very confrontational in meetings,” he says. “We would try to advance a sound political strategy, and we’d constantly get undermined by Kelly. It was almost like Chris had seen too many movies about politics and tough guys. It’s always dangerous—those guys who play wise guy and think they understand stuff they don’t understand, and that got Chris in a lot of trouble.”
Just how dangerous became clear in a meeting one day, the former senior aide recalls. “We were in the campaign office, and we were trying to make the point that we need to be careful who we take money from. And Kelly stands up and he’s yelling, pointing to the finance office next door, and he’s like, ‘I built a fundraising machine! In that computer we’ve got 30,000 state contractors, and we go systematically through them. If they want to do business with the state, they’ve gotta come through me.’ And that’s when everybody in the room sort of looked around and went, This is not going to end well.”
In those heady early days, however, Kelly was flying high—figuratively and literally. A force in the governor’s office, he had Blagojevich’s ear perhaps more than any member of the cabinet, shadow or otherwise, including Tony Rezko and Alonzo “Lon” Monk, Blagojevich’s first chief of staff. (Monk pleaded guilty last October to, among other things, a scheme to profit from state business deals.) Kelly seemed to have an uncanny knack for winning appointments to state boards and commissions for people he recommended, including some with ties to O’Hare Airport, where his company was still actively bidding on contracts. He often took private jet trips with Blagojevich and was privy to the administration’s most closely guarded secrets. Even staffers whose business it was to know felt out of the loop. “It was a closed circle,” says a second former senior Blagojevich aide.
Eventually Kelly came to hold an issue portfolio of his own: gambling. Specifically, Blagojevich tapped him to help broker a deal to auction off the state’s tenth casino license. Many observers regarded the assignment as inappropriate. It was bad enough that a fundraiser with little political experience had been handed the responsibility for gaming, a field fraught with conflict-of-interest perils. But by this time it had become known that Kelly was himself a bigtime gambler, perhaps to the point of having a problem.
The conflicts got even worse. It turned out that Kelly held an interest in a piece of Rosemont land where his pal Rezko had laid plans to build a hotel. That hotel would have become highly lucrative had the city been granted the tenth casino license—an outcome Kelly strongly advocated. (After numerous concerns were raised about Rosemont, the Illinois Gaming Board awarded the license to Midwest Gaming & Entertainment in Des Plaines.)
Though he would later express regret for the Kelly appointment, Blagojevich shrugged off questions at the time. “He understands the industry,” Blagojevich told a newspaper. “He goes to Vegas. He likes all of that.”
“Likes” was an understatement. A 2007 indictment charged that between 2000 and 2005, Kelly gambled millions of dollars, underreporting his personal and business income by more than $1.3 million and using business funds to help pay debts to bookies. He pleaded guilty to the charges in January 2009 and was sentenced to three years in prison. His imprisonment had been delayed pending the outcome of other charges.
“There’s no question he gambled to excess,” a source close to Kelly told me. “He had six-figure debts to casinos, so clearly he gambled. He’s a man who needed action. He thrived on adrenaline.”
The former senior Blagojevich aide agrees. “He was, at his heart, a risk taker: in his gambling, in his marriage, politically, legally. I think he kind of got off on being out there. People are addicted to that. It’s an addicting thing.”
To fund his habit, however, Kelly’s business had to thrive, and when it came to that, he took few chances. According to a second federal indictment (to which Kelly also pleaded guilty), he had rigged the bidding system for certain lucrative O’Hare contracts, just as the rival roofing contractor Bill O’Brien had suspected. In fact, Kelly later admitted in a 28-page plea agreement that between 1998 and 2006, he had worked with an insider to steer $8.5 million in O’Hare contracts to his company, BCI. Kelly used the proceeds for a variety of personal purposes, including paying more than $370,000 in gambling debts and repaying a $700,000 loan from Rezko to buy the Burr Ridge house. About $450,000 went to pay off the person—unnamed in the affidavit—who had helped him rig the bids.
Within the Blagojevich camp, some loyalists to the governor began to worry that Kelly might be trading state appointments and contracts in exchange for campaign contributions. “Every campaign tries to push the edge of the envelope as far as they can when it comes to contributions but still stay on the side of the law,” says the former senior aide. But with Kelly, “it wasn’t even like pushing the edge of the envelope, or being subtle, or like, ‘Hey, we’d really like to have your help.’ It was like, ‘Hey, if you like this contract, you better give.’ Obviously, it was like five steps over the line, not two toes over the line.”
Kelly couldn’t see beyond the money. “I remember getting into a fight with Chris about shutting down all these crappy coal-burning plants,” the former senior aide recalls, “and he’s like, ‘Who are you working for? Who’s your client?’ I’m like, ‘Chris, it’s the right thing to do.’ Chris was like, ‘You know how much money they give us?’ He just assumed I had an angle, that I was advocating this because it would make me money. I was like, ‘No, this is good for Rod. Good politics and good policy.’ I think he had a hard time fathoming that.”
Despite all that, the former senior aide says he saw a passion in Kelly, as well as a genuine, if misguided, desire to do the right thing. “He was a guy who wore his heart on his sleeve and wanted to win and was doing everything he could for the cause,” he says. “He just lacked political judgment and very clearly lacked an understanding of where the lines were drawn and what’s OK and what’s not OK.”
Though rumors swirled about Kelly’s strong-arm fundraising tactics, little came out publicly. Then, in 2005, Dick Mell dropped a bombshell. He’d had a falling-out with his son-in-law, Blagojevich, and in the midst of a tirade denouncing him to the Sun-Times, Mell accused Kelly of outright corruption. Once upon a time, Mell told the paper, fundraisers “would come to your house and have dinner with you and your family. We’d paint your kid’s bedroom and wash your dog for a $2,000 donation. . . . Now, [Blagojevich] raises $50,000 at a crack from his ace fundraiser, Chris Kelly, who trades appointments to commissions for checks of $50,000.”
Kelly quickly threatened to sue, and Mell backed down, retracting the statement. (Mell did not return repeated calls for comment.) But the pay-to-play allegation was now out in the open.
* * *