Gov. Rod Blagojevich is legendary in Illinois political circles for not picking up the phone or returning calls, even from important figures like the state’s senior senator, Dick Durbin.
But there was always one call Blagojevich regularly took, say his aides, and that was from Rahm Emanuel — his congressman, his one-time campaign adviser and, more recently — and troubling for Emanuel — one of his contacts with President-elect Barack Obama’s transition staff.
The friendly rapport Blagojevich and Emanuel shared over the years has suddenly become a troubling liability for Emanuel and the new president he will serve as chief of staff.
Emanuel and Obama have remained silent about what, if anything, Emanuel knew of the governor’s alleged efforts to peddle Obama’s vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder.
Emanuel did contact the governor’s office about the appointment and left Blagojevich with the impression that he was pushing Valerie Jarrett, a close Obama friend, so he wouldn’t have to compete with her in the White House for Obama’s attention, said a person close to Blagojevich. The person was not authorized to talk about the governor’s discussions regarding the vacancy and requested anonymity.
It was not clear whether Blagojevich inferred Emanuel’s motive for advocating Jarrett, or whether Emanuel discussed the appointment with Blagojevich directly or with John Harris, the governor’s then-chief of staff who also is charged in the case, according to the source.
Emanuel’s refusal to discuss the matter publicly, and the few comments offered by Obama to date, have prompted questions about Emanuel’s ties to Blagojevich and what fallout he’ll face as the criminal case unfolds, although sources have said he is not a target of prosecutors. Even so, any hint of scandal for Emanuel threatens to tarnish Obama’s promise of new political leadership free of scandal and corruption.
Obama has said he will release a full accounting of his transition staff’s interaction with Blagojevich and his aides over his Senate replacement once he receives the OK from prosecutors sometime this week. Until then, Obama has said it would be inappropriate for him or his aides to comment further.
Prosecutors refer in the 76-page complaint to the governor’s discussions on FBI tapes about a "president-elect advisor," believed to be Emanuel, but they do not specifically cite contacts with Emanuel or anyone on Obama’s transition staff.
Instead, the taped conversations reveal Blagojevich telling others to float his idea by the president’s adviser of forming a nonprofit that he hoped would, with Obama’s help, receive millions of dollars that the governor could tap later.
Blagojevich said he didn’t want the idea associated directly in conversations about the Senate appointment or filling Emanuel’s seat in the House, according to the complaint. However, Blagojevich is quoted as saying "I want it to be in his head" for later discussions about Emanuel’s successor.
It was Blagojevich who, seemingly out of nowhere, yanked Emanuel into his scandal when answering reporters’ questions the day before his Dec. 9 arrest, invoking his name in an apparent attempt to shrug off any perception of wrongdoing.
He said he wasn’t concerned about a report in the Chicago Tribune that confidant and former aide John Wyma’s cooperation had helped lead federal prosecutors to tape the governor’s conversations.
Big deal, Blagojevich said. He said he’s "always lawful" whenever he speaks, and he was confident Wyma has been "an honest person who’s conducted himself in an honest way. That’s the John Wyma I know and it’s the John Wyma that Rahm Emanuel knows and a lot of other people know."
Blagojevich is right. Wyma does have ties to both him and Emanuel, those close to both have said. And Wyma’s clients contributed to both — more than $100,000 to Emanuel’s campaigns and causes, and more than $445,000 to Blagojevich’s, according to campaign finance records reviewed by The Associated Press.
Wyma and his attorney, Zachary Fardon, did not respond to interview requests.
Emanuel’s defenders say he is hardly an ally of Blagojevich.
"They were in different worlds personally and politically," said Peter Giangreco, a political consultant on Blagojevich’s 1996 congressional campaign and his two gubernatorial races. "They only dealt with each other because they occupied the same political geography."
Emanuel’s effort to promote Jarrett or anyone else for Obama’s vacant Senate seat was more a part of his new job description and less a reflection of close ties, Emanuel’s supporters have said.
But there was more to their relationship than a polite acquaintance. The two share a political past, rooted on Chicago’s North Side, and a friendly relationship — although not a close friendship — that made Emanuel the obvious choice to push Obama’s preferences to fill his vacant Senate seat, current and former Blagojevich aides said.
They at times joined forces politically, like in 2005 to promote importing prescription drugs from Canada and in 2006 to push for an increase in the state’s minimum wage. Blagojevich, his aides say, wasn’t shy about seeking the help of Emanuel, referred to in a 2006 Tribune article as his "Washington-based mentor."
Blagojevich was a congressman before he was governor and he represented the Fifth District, a small but heavily populated district in Chicago’s northern and western suburbs, not far from O’Hare International Airport. His rise to Congress has been well documented of late, including the help he received from powerful Chicago Alderman Dick Mell — his now-estranged father-in-law.
When Emanuel returned to politics in 2002 after some years spent in investment banking, he targeted Blagojevich’s Fifth District seat as he launched his reformist campaign for governor.
Due to his personal wealth and his national fundraising base dating to his work in the Clinton administration, Emanuel didn’t have to go to Mell or to powerful unions because he already had acquired political clout.
Nancy Kaszak, who ran for Congress against Blagojevich in 1996 when both were state representatives and had a nasty battle against Emanuel in 2002, said she believes Mell quietly backed Emanuel. On Election Day that year, she recalls, Mell’s poll workers passed out literature for both Blagojevich and Emanuel. Mell declined to be interviewed for this story.
Emanuel has described himself as a one-time adviser to Blagojevich. David Wilhelm, one of Emanuel’s close friends who worked with him in the Clinton White House, informally assisted on that campaign for Blagojevich.
Emanuel, who has declined to comment since Blagojevich’s arrest, told The New Yorker magazine over the summer that he, Wilhelm and Obama met once a week during the 2002 race to plot campaign strategy for Blagojevich. Wilhelm has said Emanuel overstated the group’s role.
Also, Emanuel, Blagojevich and Obama all have hired David Axelrod, the Chicago political consultant who helped engineer Obama’s presidential victory. Axelrod helped Blagojevich in 1996 and Emanuel in 2002.
The coming days will offer the first answers about Emanuel’s recent interaction with Blagojevich and discussions about filling Obama’s Senate seat.
Obama already has insisted that his aides did no bartering with Blagojevich to advance candidates for the appointment. But refusing the deal is only the first step to fighting corruption in a political culture that promotes it when others look the other way, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said earlier when announcing the charges against Blagojevich.
"We’re not going to end corruption in Illinois by arrests and indictments alone," the prosecutor said. "What’s going to make the difference is when people who are approached to ‘pay to play’ first say no, and, second, report it."
Associated Press Writer John O’Connor contributed to this report from Springfield, Ill.