CHICAGO (Reuters) - Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested on corruption charges on Tuesday, including trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by fellow Democrat President-elect Barack Obama, federal prosecutors said.
While Obama has long distanced himself from the governor — who has been under investigation on other issues for months — Blagojevich’s arrest was likely to be an embarrassment to the president-elect, who takes office on January 20
The case shines a light once again on old-style corruption in the Chicago political caldron from which Obama emerged.
“The breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering,” U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the federal prosecutor, said in a statement.
Blagojevich was also 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.
The 51-year-old Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, were charged in a federal complaint with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and solicitation of bribery. Both were taken into custody at their homes in Chicago.
In Illinois, the governor selects a successor when there is a mid-term vacancy in the U.S. Senate. Obama resigned from the Senate soon after winning the November 4 presidential election.
In his statement, Fitzgerald said 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.”
Blagojevich allegedly was caught on court-authorized wiretaps during the last month.
He 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.
It was unclear what would happen now to the selection of a successor to Obama, although the spot would be certain to go to a Democrat. Democrats, with independent allies, will hold at least 58 seats in the 100-seat Senate when the new Congress convenes in early January. 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.
“Many, including myself, thought that the recent conviction of a former governor would usher in a new era of honesty and reform in Illinois politics,” Robert D. Grant, Special Agent-in-Charge of the Chicago Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said in a statement.
“Clearly, the charges announced today reveal that the office of the Governor has become nothing more than a vehicle for self-enrichment, unrestricted by party affiliation and taking Illinois politics to a new low.”
If Blagojevich is convicted, each mail and wire fraud charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison while each bribery charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Each count carries a maximum fine of $250,000.
Blagojevich was born in Chicago to a working-class Serbian immigrant family, working odd jobs and in a meatpacking plant to get through college. He was elected to the Illinois state House in 1992 and later won a seat in the U.S. Congress that had been held by another politician who ran afoul of the law, Dan Rostenkowski.
He became Illinois’ first Democratic governor in nearly 30 years when he replaced Ryan in 2003, on a platform of reform. But his popularity has descended to an all-time low after wrangles with fellow Democrats in the state legislature, some of whom had threatened him with impeachment.
Reporting by Michael Conlon and James Vicini, Kyle Peterson and Karen Pierog in Chicago, Editing by Jackie Frank and Frances Kerry