Illinois scandal unwelcome distraction for Obama

CHICAGO Fri Dec 12, 2008 10:28pm EST

(L-R) Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, U.S. Senator and Presidential hopeful Barack Obama (D-IL) and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley watch a video during a rally in Chicago in this April 16, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/John Gress/Files

(L-R) Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, U.S. Senator and Presidential hopeful Barack Obama (D-IL) and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley watch a video during a rally in Chicago in this April 16, 2007 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/John Gress/Files

CHICAGO (Reuters) - A political scandal that led to the arrest of Illinois' governor has become an unwelcome distraction for President-elect Barack Obama as he tries to keep his focus on preparing to run the country.

Republican officials are having a field day, suggesting that the incoming Democratic president has been less than forthcoming and forcing his team on the defensive just over a month before he takes office.

Obama's transition aides are attempting to piece together what contacts, if any, his advisers had with Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich about filling the U.S. Senate seat that Obama vacated after he won the presidency on November 4.

Blagojevich was charged this week with plotting to sell Obama's Senate seat in a jaw-dropping corrupt move that has shocked Americans and put a spotlight on political shenanigans in Chicago, the city that mobster Al Capone once ruled.

The controversy is proving to be an early test for Obama and his pledge to run a far more open and transparent government than in the recent past.

There has been no suggestion that he or his advisers have done anything wrong. In fact, the U.S. attorney who brought the charges against Blagojevich, Patrick Fitzgerald, made clear there were no allegations about Obama in the criminal complaint against the governor.

"I have never spoken with the governor on this subject," Obama told reporters on Thursday. "And I am quite confident that no representatives of mine would have had any part in any deals related to this seat."

Democrats who want to see Obama get off to a good start in his presidency are urging him to put out as much information as possible about the case in order to put it behind him.

"The president-elect and his team have handled this difficult matter very well so far. President-elect Obama has done the right thing -- commit to get all the facts out early about all contacts with the governor or his aides," said Lanny Davis, an attorney and legal crisis manager at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in Washington and a former special counsel to President Bill Clinton.

SOONER RATHER THAN LATER

Doug Schoen, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Clinton White House, said Obama needs to get the information out "sooner rather than later."

"I think he needs to wrap it up quickly and he needs to resolve it quickly and he needs to be completely transparent because his government is supposed to work with a higher level of transparency than the average administration," he said.

Questions have arisen that are putting pressure on Obama to release more information.

For example, top Obama aide Valerie Jarrett was identified as having been a candidate for the Senate seat. In a wiretapped conversation, Blagojevich said he had rejected the person identified in the indictment as "Senate Candidate 1" -- and later revealed to be Jarrett -- because "they're not willing to give me anything except appreciation. them."

Back in November Jarrett had withdrawn as a Senate candidate and Obama has named her to a top White House job.

Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said on Thursday at an election forum at Harvard University that she withdrew from consideration from the Senate seat because Obama wanted her to serve with him in the White House.

But the question remained whether Jarrett or anyone around her was aware that Blagojevich was seeking money for the seat. In Illinois, the governor has sole power to fill vacant Senate seats.

In addition, Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, a long-time member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois, has been cited in various news accounts of having contacts with Blagojevich over the years.

Did he talk to Blagojevich about the Senate seat?

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, said the Obama team can take care of the issue quickly.

"It's easy. Just say, hey, folks, here it is. Of course, we had contact. We talked about this. But they've made the mistake of making it into a four-, five-, six-day story," Rendell told

MSNBC.

Presidential scholar Stephen Hess, a political science professor at George Washington University, said the controversy is a test for Obama "to see how he does deal with a political crisis, which happens to all presidents over time."

(Editing by Jackie Frank)

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