Former Illinois Governor Blagojevich indicted

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has been indicted for corruption while in office, including trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat that was held by President Barack Obama, prosecutors said on Thursday.

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich speaks to the media during a news conference in Chicago, Illinois January 23, 2009. REUTERS/Frank Polich

A federal grand jury indicted the 52-year-old Democrat on 16 felony counts, including racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud, extortion conspiracy, attempted extortion and making false statements to federal agents.

Blagojevich, who claims he did nothing wrong and is a victim of a political witch-hunt, has promised to fight the charges in court and has a book contract to tell his side.

He faces more than 300 years in prison if convicted and at least $4 million in fines, plus restitution, according to the indictment.

Blagojevich was in his second term when the state legislature kicked him out of office nine weeks ago, after his arrest in December.

He was accused of seeking cash, campaign contributions and jobs for himself and others in exchange for state appointments, state business, legislation and pension fund investments.

Among those actions were attempts to leverage his authority to appoint a U.S. senator to take over Obama’s seat after his election as president in November, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said.

The governor was caught on court-approved wiretaps describing the Senate seat as something so valuable “you just don’t give it away for nothing.” Blagojevich added he might appoint himself if he could not get anything for the seat.

The charges on the indictment date back to 2002, before he was elected governor. Prosecutors accuse Blagojevich of trying to profit with a circle of friends, who would then divide the spoils after he left office.

The 19-count indictment also charged his older brother Robert, two former top aides and two businessmen. Robert Blagojevich, 53, a Nashville businessman, was former chairman of his brother’s campaign fund.

Blagojevich and his former chief of staff, John Harris, have been free on bond since a brief court appearance on December 9 -- the day they were arrested.

Harris, 47, was charged with a single count of fraud and has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

The former governor’s wife, Patricia, was named in the indictment but not charged.

The couple and their two daughters were on vacation in Florida on Thursday, according to media reports. CNN said they were staying at the Walt Disney World theme park and resort.

Editing by John O’Callaghan