Illinois scandal could haunt Obama

President-elect Barack Obama hasn’t even stepped into office and already a scandal is threatening to dog him.

Obama isn’t accused of anything. But the fact that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a fellow Democrat, has been charged with trying to sell Obama’s now-vacant Senate post gives political opponents an opening to try to link him to the scandal. A slew of questions remain. The investigation is still under way. And the ultimate impact on Obama is far from certain.

He pointedly distanced himself from the case Tuesday, saying, "I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so I was not aware of what was happening" concerning any possible dealing about Blagojevich’s appointment of a successor.

In Chicago, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said prosecutors were making no allegations that Obama was aware of any scheming. And Blagojevich himself, in taped conversations cited by prosecutors, suggested that Obama wouldn’t be helpful to him. Even if the governor was to appoint a candidate favored by the Obama team, Blagojevich said, "they’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation."

Republicans pounced nonetheless.

"The serious nature of the crimes listed by federal prosecutors raises questions about the interaction with Gov. Blagojevich, President-elect Obama and other high ranking officials who will be working for the future president," said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the new GOP House whip.

Added Robert M. "Mike" Duncan, chairman of the Republican National Committee, "President-elect Barack Obama’s comments on the matter are insufficient at best."

Robert Gibbs, an Obama spokesman, said, "We did not know about this recent part of the investigation until today."

The two Illinois politicians have never been especially close and have largely operated in different Democratic Party camps in the state. Blagojevich’s disdain for Obama was clear in court documents; he is quoted as calling the president-elect a vulgar term in one phone conversation recorded by the FBI.

Despite all that, at the very least, the episode amounts to a distraction for Obama just six weeks before he’s sworn into office while he works to set up his new administration and deal with a national economic crisis. It also raises the specter of notorious Chicago politics, an image Obama has tried to distance himself from during his career.

In court documents, FBI Special Agent Daniel Cain detailed several phone calls between Blagojevich and his aides that were intercepted on court-authorized wiretaps over the past month. Blagojevich is accused of conspiring to sell or trade the vacant Senate seat for personal benefits for himself and his wife, Patti. Among his alleged desires: a Cabinet post, placement at a private foundation in a significant position, campaign contributions or an ambassadorship.

There were signs the continuing investigation could still involve Obama.

It appears that Obama friend Valerie Jarrett, an incoming senior White House adviser, is the person referred to repeatedly in court documents as "Candidate 1." That individual is described as a woman who is "an adviser to the president-elect" and as the person Obama wanted appointed to the Senate seat. Court papers say that Candidate 1 eventually removed herself from consideration for the Senate seat.

Blagojevich talked at length about Candidate 1 in a Nov. 11 phone conversation with an aide.

One day later, Jarrett, a Chicago businesswoman who is one of three co-chairmen of Obama’s transition team and was a high-level adviser to his presidential campaign, made it known that she was not interested in the seat. On Nov. 15, Obama announced that Jarrett would be a senior White House adviser and assistant for intergovernmental relations.

Obama’s circle of major Illinois political allies and supporters is largely separate from Blagojevich’s, with two major exceptions. Both Obama and Blagojevich got extensive money and support from Chicago businessman Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who is awaiting sentencing after being convicted in June on charges of using clout with Blagojevich’s administration to help launch a $7 million kickback scheme. And Obama is close to Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, who has been the governor’s staunchest legislative ally.

At least one top aide to Obama, Michael Strautmanis, previously worked for Blagojevich. Obama has appointed Strautmanis to serve as White House chief of staff to the presidential assistant for intergovernmental relations and public liaison. The Chicago native was legislative director and counsel to Blagojevich when the governor was a member of Congress and then helped Blagojevich win the governorship in 2002. There is no indication that Strautmanis is involved in the case.

More details on the case could be forthcoming.

Court documents say they don’t include all calls dealing with the governor’s efforts regarding the Senate appointment. And many people in the documents are referred to by aliases; there’s little doubt their identities will eventually surface.


Liz Sidoti covered the presidential campaign for The Associated Press and has covered national politics since 2003.