How Much Did Obama Know?

What would two Illinois governors say to each other in the chow line of a federal prison? Maybe, as Mara Liaison said yesterday, George Ryan would tell Rod Blagojevich, “The food was better when you were governor.”

Yesterday, the latest scandal in Illinois rocked the Office of President-elect Barack Obama, the State of Illinois and the Chicago Democrat political machine. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald abruptly shattered business as usual Tuesday when he announced at a press conference the early-morning arrest of Illinois Governor Roy Blagojevich and his chief of staff John Harris on federal corruption charges.

“The breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering,” Fitzgerald said at the presser. “They 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. The citizens of Illinois deserve public officials who act solely in the public’s interest, without putting a price tag on government appointments, contracts and decisions,” he added.

Excerpts from numerous court-authorized phone wiretaps included in a 76-page FBI affidavit exposed Blagojevich attempting to sell or trade Obama’s recently-vacated United States Senate seat.

According to a statement released by the U.S. Justice Department, at various times in these taped conversations, in exchange for the Senate appointment, Blagojevich “discussed obtaining a substantial salary for himself at either a non-profit foundation or an organization affiliated with labor unions; placing his wife on paid corporate boards where he speculated she might garner as much as $150,000 per year; promises of campaign funds including cash up front; and a cabinet post or an ambassadorship for himself.”

Other allegations included that Blagojevich and Harris “corruptly solicited and demanded a thing of value, namely, the firing of certain Chicago Tribune editorial members responsible for widely-circulated editorials critical of Rod Blagojevich” in exchange for favorable state involvement in the sale of Wrigley Field — a property owned by the Chicago Tribune’s parent company.

Other than Harris, none of the participants in these taped phone conversations with the governor were identified by name in the complaint. Blagojevich and Harris are both charged with mail fraud and solicitation of bribes resulting from what Fitzgerald called a “corruption crime spree.”

Illinois law allows Blagojevich to make the Senate appointment while charged with this federal crime, which prompted Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Il.) to call for a special election to fill the seat Obama resigned, saying, "No appointment by this governor, under these circumstances, could produce a credible replacement.” Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan said on Tuesday that he is ready to convene the House next Monday to conduct a vote on a special election to choose Obama’s successor.

In his previously-scheduled press availability Tuesday, Obama was asked if he had any discussions with Blagojevich about the appointment to fill his seat. “I had no contact with the governor or his office and so we were not… uh… I was not aware of what was happening,” Obama said.

Yet by early afternoon, tape transcripts began to make the rounds on the internet and talk radio of a November 23 Fox Chicago Sunday interview with Obama senior advisor David Axelrod. When asked in the interview if Obama had any preference for who might replace him in the Senate, Axelrod replied, “I know he [Obama] has talked to the governor and there are a whole range of names that have surfaced. He has a fondness for a lot of them.”

The internet and talk radio were afire by the afternoon with speculation of trouble ahead in this scandal for the incoming Obama administration. The term “President-elect” appears a significant 44 times in the complaint in regard to conversations or instructions to contact “President-elect” advisors about some elements of quid pro quo surrounding the appointment. When asked at the presser if the President-elect was part of the investigation, Fitzgerald said that there were “no charges in the complaint” against Obama, stating that he would comment no further on that topic.

During the Watergate investigation, former Senator Fred Thompson, a young Tennessee attorney at the time on the staff of then Sen. Howard Baker, asked a famous question about Richard Nixon that some pundits are now asking about Obama in this scandal: “What did he know and when did he know it?”

Since Axelrod’s statement was the issue, another statement — issued late yesterday — said his earlier statement was mistaken.