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Ill. Governor Arrested On Corruption Charges

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Today's accusations against Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich were stunning in their breadth as federal prosecutors revealed evidence from a corruption probe. Patrick Fitzgerald is the U.S. attorney for the northern district of Illinois.

Mr. PATRICK FITZGERALD (U.S. Attorney, Northern District of Illinois): The most cynical behavior of all this, the most appalling, is the fact that Governor Blagojevich tried to sell the appointment to the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Obama. The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave.

SIEGEL: Blagojevich is not the first Illinois governor to face federal charges, and the scandal casts a shadow over the process of choosing a replacement to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat. More on that in a few minutes. First, NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago on the criminal complaint.

DAVID SCHAPER: Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich was in the middle of what Patrick Fitzgerald says can only be described as a political crime spree.

Mr. FITZGERALD: This is a sad day for government. It's a very sad day for Illinois government. Governor Blagojevich has taken us to a truly new low.

SCHAPER: Blagojevich was awakened before dawn this morning and arrested at his North Side Chicago home, led away in handcuffs by FBI agents. Blagojevich and his administration have been under federal investigation for several years. Some key members of his inner circle are already behind bars for engaging in what federal prosecutors call a pay-to-play scheme in which companies wanting to do business with the state were shaken down for campaign contributions and cash kickbacks. Because of that probe, Illinois lawmakers passed a bill banning campaign contributions from those doing business with the state, which will take effect in January. Again, Patrick Fitzgerald.

Mr. FITZGERALD: You might have thought in that environment that pay-to-play would slow down. The opposite happened. It sped up.

SCHAPER: With the governor ramping up, Fitzgerald says investigators were able to wiretap the governor's home phone and bug his office, catching brazen acts of corruption on tape, like him trying to get $100,000 out of a billion dollar tollway contractor, $100,000 for him to sign a gambling bill, and $50,000 from the head of a children's hospital for an $8 million state grant. When that check didn't come in, Fitzgerald says Blagojevich tried to pull back the grant. And as the financially troubled Tribune Company was looking for state financial assistance for the sale of Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team which Tribune owns, Fitzgerald says the governor tried to force The Chicago Tribune to fire certain editorial writers for what he considered biased coverage against him.

Mr. FITZGERALD: In the governor's words, quote, "Fire all those bleeping people. Get them the bleep out of there. And get us some editorial support," close quote. And the bleeps are not really bleeps.

SCHAPER: But the most appalling, most shocking examples of corruption, according to Fitzgerald, came after fellow Illinois Democrat Barack Obama won the presidential election last month and Blagojevich became the sole person who would appoint Obama's replacement in the U.S. Senate.

Mr. FITZGERALD: The governor's own words describing the Senate seat: quote, "It's a bleeping valuable thing. You just don't give it away for nothing," close quote. Another quote: "I've got this thing, and it's bleeping golden. I'm just not giving it up for bleeping nothing."

SCHAPER: In exchange for putting in a person Mr. Obama favored for the post, Fitzgerald says Blagojevich tried to work out a deal in which he would get a high-paying job with the Service Employees International Union in its Change to Win campaign. And he allegedly also tried to get lucrative appointments to corporate boards for his wife and other jobs for himself, along with plain old cash from others seeking the Senate seat.

Fitzgerald says there is no evidence President-elect Obama knew anything about the scheme, nor is anyone in his office accused of doing anything wrong. The governor appeared in court this afternoon, and a federal judge ordered him released on his own recognizance. He would not comment to reporters as he left the Dirksen Federal Building, downtown Chicago. But just yesterday Blagojevich did comment on reports that he had been secretly recorded by federal agents.

Governor ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Democrat, Illinois): I don't care whether you tape me privately or publicly, I can tell you that whatever I say is always lawful...

SCHAPER: Illinois politicians in both parties are calling on the governor to resign. Some legislators say that if he doesn't, they will start impeachment proceedings. And the Illinois General Assembly may hold a special session to set a special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Obama. But as of now, Governor Blagojevich still has that sole authority. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
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