This written by Dan Westerbeck, retired lawyer from Chicago.
Since most of you do not understand the "Chicago way" of doing things and come from places that are, relatively speaking, governed by elections, you may need an interpreter for news from Chicago, especially about Cook County politics. That's why I'm here.
You may think today's story is about the crooked Illinois governor selling Obama's Senate seat. What you don't know is how the Bush Justice Dept. probably steered Obama away from disaster even before taking office . Here's how the pieces of the puzzle fit, based on the known facts as well as those alleged in the abCriminal Complaint, my knowledge of federal criminal case management and protocols, and some deductive reasoning.
As you know by now the beloved Governor of Illinois was arrested for, among other things, attempting to auction off Obama's US Senate seat. The federal criminal Complaint (three pages backed up by a 76 page FBI affidavit) states that Gov. Blagoyovich (Blago) was attempting to set conditions for filling that seat with the Obama transition team. This implies a certain level of communication between Blago and Obama or their staffs, although the Complaint does not specifically state that. (You'll see why not.) David Axelrod, Obama's chief political strategist (from Cook County) said two weeks ago that he, Obama, and the Obama team had been in constant contact with Blago and his staff about filling the seat and had liked a number of the candidates mentioned. (He obviously hadn't gotten the word then.)
Today Obama himself denied having anything to do with naming his successor, denied having any communications with Blago, and generally felt sorry about everything. Now the press will ignore Axelrod, accept Obama's statement, shift the spotlight to Blago, and search for the other conspirators, including who was willing to pay for the Senate seat. End of story for Obama; just another corrupt Cook County scam miraculously not involving Obama in any way. Yawn.
But let me tell you what really went down and how the nation just averted a Constitutional crisis.
Three critical facts must be noted. The Illinois governor appoints people to vacant US Senate seats. Second, the feds have wiretapped Blago off and on since 2004 in their "Pay to Play" investigation. You had to pay him money in order to play--bid for state contracts to manage money, pave roads, supply linens, etc. (That's the Chicago way.) He is destined for a federal penitentiary because the tapes have been rolling for 5 years now. A number of his cronies have been indicted and convicted on the basis of the wiretaps. Third, and most important, Blago's offices have been bugged by the feds for the past 4-6 weeks, possibly longer--that's around election time for you senior citizens. (The feds probably detected sufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy on the wiretaps and through informants such that they could plant the bugs in Blago's offices.)
Obama's hand picked successor for his Senate seat was Valerie Jarrett who is on his campaign staff. This was well known before the election and Ms. Jarrett had even announced her candidacy. She was a slam dunk. The ONLY question on the table after the election was what price Blago would extract from Obama for appointing Ms. Jarrett--appointing Blago as ambassador to Lithuainia, naming him Secy. of Transportation, some Democrat party post, establishing a library and foundation a la Bill Clinton, whatever. Blago was constantly talking on the tapes of his need for more cash and how the "fucking Senate seat was worth a lot of money" (per the federal complaint).
The US Attorney here, Patrick Fitzgerald, is fearless and has jailed Republicans (former Governor Geo. Ryan) and Democrats alike. Some guys on Richie Daley's staff are doing time for the same thing--taking bribes (sometimes described as campaign contributions). Ironically Blago was elected as a reformer and a break from the George Ryan school of corruption. In any event, Fitzgerald has kept the Justice Dept. fully informed of all the Blago investigations, wiretaps, bugs, etc., and where they were headed since he needed their approval (as well as a court's) to run them. It is a certainty that the Attorney General knew of the Blago investigation because the target was the governor of a state (very high profile).
Once Obama was elected Fitzgerald and the Attorney General saw what was coming--a Blago-Obama negotiation over the Senate seat. Given what they knew about the corrupt process Blago was engaged in through their taping/bugging, such a negotiation would be disastrous politically for Obama and possibly even criminal. Those tapes will have to be played in court some day. (That may be why Obama looked a little rattled today in announcing his total absence of knowledge and communication on the entire subject of his successor.)
After the election Obama and his staff began to get briefings as part of the transition process. It is likely that the Attorney General informed him of the ongoing investigations of Blago and of the wiretaps and bugs. Obama got the clue, but perhaps forgot to tell Axelrod. But he did tell Valerie Jarrettt something because four weeks ago she withdrew her name from consideration for the Obama Senate seat. Of course, this was an extraordinary thing to do under normal circumstances.
Normally in a federal conspiracy prosecution you let the tapes roll and the conspiracy play out in order to catch all the big fish. (I was a federal prosecutor in my distant past.) Remember, the feds have wiretapped Blago since 2004, per previous testimony in court. Once you get one of the conspirators to wire up, as the feds did here, you let him meet and talk to everybody forever--weeks, months, years even. However, since they already had the governor nailed, the only bigger fish left in the pond were Obama and his staff. And listening to Blago on the tapes they knew where he was headed--right to Obama to get his price for the Senate seat.
So after the election, as Patrick Fitzgerald and the Attorney General pondered this, their choice was stark: 1. do we follow the normal protocol and let the tapes roll and may be reel in Obama staffers (or, God forbid, Obama himself) bargaining with Blago in the US Senate seat auction; or, 2. do we tip Obama in a briefing and abruptly terminate the investigation at the governor's level and thus preclude it from reaching Obama and his staff
I think they made a political and legal calculation in the nation's interest and chose the latter course. They saved Obama, or certainly his staff, from the taint of the criminal auction and also prevented the sale of a US Senate seat by a corrupt Cook County Democrat politician by arresting Blago.
That's why Obama has been saying for weeks that he himself has nothing to do with the selection of his successor. Although such a position is contrary to common sense and political tradition, in this case, he's probably telling the truth at least insofar as the past month is concerned.
So Obama now owes the Justice Dept. and US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, in particular, a big one because he kept the president elect from stepping in to a first rate criminal scandal by tipping him on the Blago wiretaps and bugs. And the Bush Attorney General and US Attorney Fitzgerald probably saved the country a huge new scandal as well since Obama's team would have been further ensnared in a federal criminal investigation after inauguration
What job does Patrick Fitzgerald want since Obama owes him big time--pope, federal judge (even Supreme Court), ambassador to Ireland, attorney general (Eric Holder may not make it anyway because of the Marc Rich pardon and Obama would throw him over in a minute if Fitzgerald asked for it). We shall see, but the Cook County Democrat Machine certainly wants to be rid of Fitzgerald and the only way to do that is kill him (that went out with Capone) or promote him. Unfortunately for them, Fitzgerald professes to like his current job. And there is no way Obama asks for his resignation now or appoints a new US attorney unless Fitzpatrick wants to go.
So you see, things are never quite what they seem to be here in Chi-town. You thought this was all about a lone crooked Cook County politician who became governor...That's where the press will be headed because it will be entertaining.
But now you know the likely story of how close we came to having a federal criminal case swirling around a new president.