A corruption scandal in President-elect Obama’s backyard is the last thing this country needs. But like it or not, that’s exactly what we have in the unfolding drama of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s arrest earlier this week for trying to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat. The federal prosecutor in the case — Patrick Fitzgerald, the man whose investigation of the Valerie Plame leak case nearly paralyzed the Bush White House for a time — has made it clear that nothing ties Obama directly to the Blagojevich scheme. But the timing of Fitzgerald’s announcement raises some serious questions.
Apparently, Fitzgerald knew that Blagojevich was trolling for bidders for the Obama seat in the waning days of the general election. Before the first votes were counted to elect Obama president, Blagojevich was so confident in Obama’s victory he was already soliciting bids for the seat. And Fitzgerald already had substantial evidence that Blagojevich was engaged in major corruption before the governor put a "for sale" sign on the Senate seat. So why didn’t the federal prosecutor act prior to the election? Had he done so, of course, it could have damaged Obama.
Many would argue that bringing down another Illinois Democrat before the election would have smelled like a dirty trick. The federal prosecutor, after all, was a Republican appointee, and the McCain campaign had already run ads trying to tie Obama to political corruption in Chicago. One of Obama’s early financial supporters, land developer Tony Rezko, was convicted on corruption charges earlier this year, and Rezko figures prominently in the Blagojevich scandal. Had Blagojevich been forced to do a perp walk before Election Day, voters might have asked why Obama had endorsed Blagojevich just two years earlier, considering the governor was at that time under investigation for taking bribes. The endorsement would have been yet another example of Obama’s bad judgment in his associations from Rezko to the Rev. Wright to Bill Ayers.
But even if Fitzgerald acted fairly and prudently by not moving against Blagojevich in the heat of a political campaign, why did he decide to act this week? His explanation was that he was trying to stop "a political corruption crime spree." Under existing Illinois law, the governor has final authority to appoint someone to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat and wiretaps suggest Blagojevich was about to do just that. According to the criminal complaint, Blagojevich had found at least one bidder — identified only as Senate Candidate 5 — who offered to raise the governor $500,000 and another $1 million if he got the appointment. Perhaps Fitzgerald simply wanted to go public before Blagojevich sealed the deal.
But there are other possible explanations. Fitzgerald’s hand may have been forced by the Chicago Tribune, which reported Dec. 5 that Blagojevich’s phone lines were being tapped. This information signaled everyone — the governor and anyone talking to the governor or his aides — that they could become ensnared in a huge criminal investigation leading to indictments.
President-elect Obama has emphatically denied that he ever talked to Blagojevich about his Senate replacement. And certainly Fitzgerald has done everything he can to confirm that Obama is not implicated in any way. But there are a number of unanswered questions about what contact members of the president-elect’s team might have had with the governor or his aides, directly or through intermediaries. A number of aides, including the incoming White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, and former campaign leader David Axelrod, have long-standing ties to Blagojevich. And Axelrod has already had to revise his earlier assertion that Obama had spoken with Blagojevich about candidates to replace him in the Senate.
The president-elect has said "I want to gather all the facts about any staff contact that may have taken place. We’ll have those in the next few days and we’ll present them."
The president-elect’s credibility is on the line. For the good of the country, we must all hope this scandal doesn’t infect anyone in the new administration. The best way to ensure that is for the president-elect and his aides to be forthcoming quickly.