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.
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.
If convicted, he faces more than 300 years in prison and at least $4 million in fines, plus restitution, according to the indictment.
Blagojevich, elected in 2002, was in his second term when the state legislature kicked him out of office nine weeks ago, following his arrest in December.
The 75-page indictment alleges Blagojevich was at the center of a conspiracy to seek 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 when Obama vacated his seat after his election as president in November, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and fellow prosecutors said in the indictment.
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.
After he was charged in December, Blagojevich ignored advice from party leaders and named Roland Burris, a former Illinois attorney general, to fill the Senate seat.
After much back-and-forth, Burris was seated but his appointment is under investigation by a state prosecutor. Burris was not mentioned in Thursday’s indictment.
New allegations in the indictment included:
— Beginning before he was elected and afterward, Blagojevich, two colleagues and Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a former Obama fundraiser who has since been jailed, agreed that they would use the governor’s office for personal gain and split the spoils after he left office.
— Blagojevich and others directed state business involving the refinancing of billions of dollars in State of Illinois Pension Obligation Bonds to a company whose lobbyist agreed to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars as a kickback.
— Blagojevich delayed a state grant to a publicly supported school while trying to leverage an unidentified U.S. congressman, a supporter of the school, to hold a campaign fundraiser for the governor.
The 19-count indictment also charged Blagojevich’s older brother Robert, two former aides and two businessmen. Robert Blagojevich, 53, a Nashville businessman, was former chairman of his brother’s campaign fund.
Blagojevich and former chief of staff John Harris have been free on bond since a brief court appearance on December 9.
Harris, 47, was charged with a single count of fraud and has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Rezko has also been cooperating.
The former governor’s wife, Patricia, was mentioned in the indictment but was not charged.
The couple and their two daughters were on vacation at the Walt Disney World theme park and resort in Florida on Thursday, according to media reports.
Blagojevich refused to participate in impeachment proceedings against him in the state legislature, embarking instead on a round of media interviews to plead his case.
He showed up in the state capital on the final day to offer an impassioned closing argument but state senators voted unanimously to oust him and bar him from office.
Democratic Lieutenant Governor Patrick Quinn was sworn in almost immediately, with a promise of ethics reform.
“We can only hope the former governor will not view this indictment as a green light for another publicity tour,” said U.S. Senator Dick Durbin. “Rod Blagojevich deserves his day in court but the people of Illinois deserve a break.”
Editing by John O'Callaghan