Obama review clears staff in Blagojevich probe

WASHINGTON Tue Dec 23, 2008 6:40pm EST

Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois addresses questions about charges brought against him of conspiracy and bribery, including allegations he was seeking to benefit financially from his appointment of a successor to the U.S. Senate seat that was vacated by President-elect Barack Obama during a news conference in Chicago, December 19, 2008. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes

Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois addresses questions about charges brought against him of conspiracy and bribery, including allegations he was seeking to benefit financially from his appointment of a successor to the U.S. Senate seat that was vacated by President-elect Barack Obama during a news conference in Chicago, December 19, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Jeff Haynes

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President-elect Barack Obama's aides had no improper contact with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who has been accused of seeking to sell Obama's Senate seat, a review by his office concluded Tuesday.

Blagojevich is at the center of a corruption investigation that has made national headlines and left Obama's transition team scrambling to distance the incoming president from the scandal-tarred governor.

Blagojevich, like Obama a Democrat, has denied any wrongdoing and refused to resign from his job.

The report by Obama's office detailed contacts between Obama staffers -- including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel -- and employees in Blagojevich's office and concluded that there was "no indication of inappropriate discussions with the governor or anyone from his office about a 'deal' or a quid pro quo arrangement in which he would receive a personal benefit in return for any specific appointment to fill the vacancy."

The U.S. attorney's office, in announcing the charges against Blagojevich this month, said Obama was in no way implicated. The transition team review also said Obama had not spoken to the governor about these issues.

But the report was unlikely to fully satisfy critics who have accused Obama's team of being less than forthcoming about Blagojevich's handling of the open Senate seat.

The transition office said it had the report ready for release last week but delayed its publication at the request of prosecutors, who were still interviewing witnesses for the Blagojevich probe.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Emanuel had privately urged Blagojevich's administration to appoint Obama confidant Valerie Jarrett to the Senate seat that Obama vacated when he was elected president November 4.

The report said Emanuel did have "one or two" telephone calls with Blagojevich and did recommend Jarrett for the job, but "there was no discussion of a cabinet position ... or of any other personal benefit to the governor in exchange for the Senate appointment."

Emanuel's phone calls were to tell the governor he was taking the White House chief of staff position and would be resigning his House of Representatives seat, and for a brief discussion about the Senate seat and the merits of various contenders, the report said.

It said Jarrett and strategist David Axelrod did not have any contact with the governor or his office. Dr. Eric Whitaker, a family friend who was not a member of the transition team, was approached and asked for information by a member of the governor's circle, the report said.

The review confirmed Obama's statements that he had no contact or communication with Blagojevich or members of the governor's staff about the Senate seat.

The scandal has been an unwelcome distraction for Obama as he focuses on plans to rebuild the U.S. economy when he takes power on January 20.

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