(adds comments by Senate majority leader Reid, call for special Illinois election)
By Michael Conlon and Andrew Stern
CHICAGO, Dec 9 (Reuters) - The governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, was arrested on Tuesday on “staggering” corruption charges that alleged he tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by fellow Democrat, President-elect Barack Obama.
The governor also tried to extort the Chicago Tribune, one of the country’s leading newspapers, into firing editorial writers who were critical of him, federal prosecutors said.
Obama has long distanced himself from the governor of his home state — who has been under investigation on other issues for years — but Blagojevich’s arrest was a likely embarrassment to the president-elect. Obama said he was “saddened and sobered” by the news and had not been aware of the alleged efforts to sell the Senate seat he vacated.
The case shined light again on old-style corruption in the grimy caldron of Chicago politics from which Obama emerged.
Obama, who takes office on Jan. 20, resigned from the Senate after winning the Nov. 4 presidential election. The Illinois governor is meant to pick Obama’s Senate replacement.
The U.S. Senate’s Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, called for the decision on appointing Obama’s replacement to be taken out of Blagoveich’s hands.
State lawmakers said they would go into session to try to have the law changed so a replacement can be picked by a special election — meaning that Obama’s replacement could be a Republican if the voters so decided.
Caught on tape, Blagojevich used an expletive as he described the Senate seat as something so valuable “you just don’t give it away for nothing.” He said he might even appoint himself if he could get nothing for it, the criminal complaint against him said.
“The breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering,” U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the federal prosecutor, said in a statement detailing the charges.
It was enough to make revered Illinois statesman Abraham Lincoln “roll over in his grave,” Fitzgerald later told reporters, adding the arrest of Blagojevich was made in order to stop a “crime spree.”
The governor and his chief of staff, John Harris, were taken into custody at their Chicago homes. Blagojevich appeared in court later and was released on his own recognizance, meaning he did not have to post bail.
There were immediate calls from both Republicans and Democrats in Illinois for Blagojevich to resign.
Blagojevich’s office issued a statement saying the allegations would not affect the functioning of the state.
Fitzgerald stressed there were no allegations in the criminal complaint about Obama. The president-elect told reporters: “I had no contact with the governor or his office and so I was not aware of what was happening.”
Blagojevich and Harris were each charged in a federal complaint with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and a second count of solicitation of bribery.
The mail and wire fraud charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison while the bribery charge has a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Each count carries a maximum fine of $250,000.
The charges “allege that Blagojevich put a ‘for sale’ sign on the naming of a United States senator; involved himself personally in pay-to-play schemes with the urgency of a salesman meeting his annual sales target; and corruptly used his office in an effort to trample editorial voices of criticism,” Fitzgerald said in his statement.
Blagojevich was accused of threatening to withhold state assistance to the Tribune Company in connection with the sale of the Chicago Cubs’ baseball home, Wrigley Field, in order “to induce the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial board members sharply critical” of him, Fitzgerald said.
Investigators said Blagojevich and Harris were caught on court-authorized wiretaps.
Blagojevich was seeking a “substantial” salary for himself at a nonprofit foundation or union affiliated organization, a spot on a corporate board for his wife, promises of campaign cash, as well as a cabinet post or ambassadorship in exchange for his Senate choice, an FBI affidavit said.
Democrats, with independent allies, would hold at least 58 seats in the 100-seat Senate when the new Congress convenes in early January if Obama’s successor is a Democrat. A Minnesota Senate seat is still undecided.
Blagojevich, in his second term, is the latest in a string of Illinois governors to run afoul of the law. His immediate predecessor, George Ryan, is in jail following a federal corruption conviction. (Reporting by Michael Conlon and James Vicini, Kyle Peterson and Karen Pierog in Chicago; Editing by Jackie Frank, Frances Kerry and Bill Trott)