WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President-elect Barack Obama and a top aide have been interviewed by prosecutors investigating Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, but an internal report released on Tuesday cleared them of any wrongdoing.
Blagojevich is mired in a corruption investigation that has left Obama’s transition team scrambling to distance the incoming president from the scandal-tarred governor.
Among the charges the governor faces is the accusation that he tried to sell Obama’s recently vacated Senate seat. He has denied the charges and refused to resign from his job.
The report released on Tuesday said Obama, his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and close friend Valerie Jarrett, who had initially expressed interest in filling the seat, had been interviewed separately by the U.S. Attorney’s office last week as part of their criminal investigation into Blagojevich.
The U.S. Attorney’s office, in announcing the charges against Blagojevich this month, said Obama was in no way implicated. The internal report said Obama had had no contact or communication with Blagojevich or members of his staff about his Senate seat.
The report, which detailed contacts between Obama staffers and employees in Blagojevich’s office, concluded there was no indication that any “quid pro quo” arrangement over the job had been suggested or considered by any Obama staffers.
“My inquiry determined that there was nothing at all inappropriate about those conversations,” incoming White House attorney Greg Craig said on a conference call with reporters.
Craig stressed that Emanuel was the only figure within the transition team to have direct contact with Blagojevich or members of his staff and said “those contacts were totally appropriate and acceptable.”
But the report was unlikely to fully satisfy critics who have accused Obama’s team of being less than forthcoming about how much they knew about the way Blagojevich was handling the open Senate seat, for which he alone may name a replacement.
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 report said Emanuel had had “one or two” telephone calls with Blagojevich and discussed possible candidates for the Senate seat that Obama vacated after he was elected president on November 4.
“Mr. Emanuel recommended Valerie Jarrett because he knew she was interested in the seat,” the report said. “He did so before learning — in further conversations — that the president-elect had ruled out communicating a preference.”
It stressed that at no time did Emanuel discuss a cabinet job, a non-profit position or any other personal benefit for the governor in connection with his Senate choice.
Jarrett, an Obama senior campaign adviser and former Chicago housing developer, took her name out of consideration for the Senate seat on November 9 and has since been named a senior White House adviser.
The scandal has been a distraction for Obama as he focuses on plans to rebuild the U.S. economy when he takes power on January 20 — forcing the transition team onto the defensive even as it readies to take power.
The report said Jarrett and strategist David Axelrod did not have any contact with Blagojevich or his office, while Dr. Eric Whitaker, an Obama 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 — unbeknownst to top Obama aides.
“No one in the Obama circle was aware of what was going on in the governor’s office or in the governor’s mind until such time as he was arrested,” Craig said.
Editing by Anthony Boadle