By Henry J. Stern
December 10, 2008
Today’s newspapers describe the downfall of the Governor of Illinois, who was taped by Federal prosecutors in an obscene tirade about his intention to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s seat in the United States Senate to the highest bidder. The grossness and ludicrousness of the attempted crime, the vile language used by the perp, and the proximity of the case to the President-elect have made the matter a national scandal, despite the fact that there is no evidence that Mr. Obama knew of, or had anything to do with the Governor’s corruption.
Mr. Blagojevich’s behavior could be described as the audacity of a dope.
The Daily News’ editorial cartoon today shows the Illinois Governor in prison stripes, standing on an Olympic-style pedestal, in front of a sign declaring “world’s sleaziest governor.” Blagojevich has dethroned Governor Spitzer, who is seen on the floor clad in boxer shorts festooned with hearts, and Governor McGreevey, who is simply lying on his stomach, which his back up.
If there were space for a third runner up, the cartoon might have included Governor Rowland of Connecticut, who went from the State House to the Federal penitentiary for fraud. Three recent governors in the tri-state metropolitan area were unable to complete their terms because of legal entanglements, but only one, Rowland, went to jail. He served ten and one half months.
If any of you didn’t know, the “Black Sox” is a reference to baseball’s biggest scandal, when the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in 1919. New York gangster Arnold Rothstein provided the money to pay off the players. He was murdered in the Park Central Hotel in 1928, the same hostelry in which Albert Anastasia was slain in 1957. After three rechristenings, the establishment reverted to the name under which it opened in June 1927. The hotel is located on Seventh Avenue, three blocks south of Central Park.
Chicago was also the site of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929, the shooting of gangster John Dillinger by FBI agents in 1934, the conviction of Al Capone for income tax evasion in 1931, the Great Fire of 1873, the Republican convention in 1860 which nominated Abraham Lincoln, and the Democratic convention of 1968 (marred by street violence and the police response). At that time, Richard J. Daley was mayor. The current mayor is his son, Richard M. Daley.
The question some people ask is: if the Governor was such a crook, as he appears to have been, what did Senator Obama know about it? Furthermore, what, if anything, did Obama do about it, and what could he possibly have done if he wanted ‘change’ in Illinois?
This is the subject of a piece by Mike McIntire and Jeff Zeleny in today’s New York Times, p33, headed OBAMA’s EFFORT ON ETHICS BILL HAD ROLE IN GOVERNOR’S FALL. It describes how Obama’s intervention in favor of state ethics reform in September 2008, inadvertently led the Feds to wiretap Blagojevich’s phone. Eventually, that effort yielded evidence of widespread corruption, and prompted the criminal charges which were brought against the governor yesterday.
It is agreed that the President-elect had nothing to do with the attempted sale of his seat. Mr. Obama supported a candidate, a black woman attorney named Valerie Jarrett, who was highly regarded, but she did not bring a dowry to the Governor’s table. On November 10th, the Governor said, of Obama, “this motherfucker” wasn’t giving him a cabinet post, yet still expected him to appoint his choice for senator. The Governor’s words do not suggest enormous respect for his fellow Illinoisan. To head off any concerns over past political ties to Blagojevich, Obama called for the Governor’s resignation today, a day after the governor’s arrest.
Blagojevich’s dishonesty and erratic behavior came out in his second term. His first four years were relatively clean. His staff was professional. Some, in fact, were recruited from New York City. Three of his key aides (the Deputy Governor, Special Assistant to the Governor, and Director of Education Reform) were Parks alumni, young men with excellent reputations for intelligence, integrity and industry. All three left near the end of the first term.
What happened within the Blagojevich administration after that is a mystery, but it appears the governor followed a spiraling downward path. His defiance of the Federal wiretappers, expressed on the phone shortly before he was arrested, evokes former Senator Gary Hart’s challenge to reporters to follow him around to check on his social life, during his 1988 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination to oppose George H. W. Bush.
A short time later, Hart was photographed on a pleasure boat, aptly named “Monkey Business”, consorting with a woman named Donna Rice. When asked which candidate she supported, Ms. Rice could well have replied: “In my heart, I am for Bush. But in my bush, I am for Hart.”
The widely publicized sighting led to the complete collapse of Hart’s Presidential campaign, just as former John Edwards’ betrayal of his cancer-stricken wife terminated his own political ambitions (and made him the father of a baby girl). New York Congressman Vito Fossella also fathered a daughter in an extramarital affair with a woman he described as a “close friend.” Fossella will finish out his remaining weeks in Congress before he faces a different term: he may serve five days in a Virginia jail for drunk driving if his appeal from a judge’s sentence is rejected.
From my own experience with the late Queens Borough President Donald Manes, who committed suicide in 1986 while facing corruption charges, it is often a very small circle that knows what a senior politician is up to. Manes was ultimately caught because a conspirator in Chicago (again) who had been convicted of bribery in a case involving parking meters, and was seeking a shorter sentence ratted him out. Despite all the New York City reporters and investigative agencies, Manes was not tripped up until the Chicago canary sang.
People who are not in government often assume that when a political crook is caught, all the insiders knew about it and covered up the criminality. That is not the case. Most of an official’s staff doesn’t know anything about his crimes, and some that are suspicious have no evidence they can present to the authorities. Whistle blowers are often hounded by investigative agencies more anxious to determine the source of rumors than to ascertain their accuracy.
One could describe from personal experience the hazards of reporting suspicious behavior, but one would risk litigation resulting from such disclosure.P.S. This afternoon Congressman Jesse L. Jackson was outed as candidate No. 5, who sought the senate appointment from the governor. The Congressman denied the allegation. He had, however, met with the Governor the day before the Governor was arrested.