WASHINGTON -- The federal corruption allegations against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich cast an embarrassing glare on the world of Chicago politics he shares with President-elect Barack Obama, even though the two Democrats aren't close and there is no suggestion Obama did anything inappropriate.
The case will keep the public spotlight on some episodes Obama thought he had put behind him, including his ties to Antoin Rezko, a convicted Chicago real-estate developer who was accused in a Federal Bureau of Investigation affidavit Tuesday of scheming with Blagojevich. Rezko raised campaign funds for both men, and was one of Obama's earliest supporters as he was climbing the political ladder in Illinois.
The matter also highlights ties between the disgraced Democratic governor and some members of Obama's inner circle. His top campaign strategist, David Axelrod -- who will move to the White House for a senior adviser's job -- lists Blagojevich on his firm's Web site as one of his clients, when the politician was a candidate for Congress.
And because Blagojevich stands accused of trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the president-elect, Obama's name will be forever linked to the case, even though he isn't accused of wrongdoing.
Chicago has been home to some of the country's most notorious corrupt politicians as well as some leading political reformers. Obama throughout his career has tried to portray himself as being firmly in the latter camp, while critics have repeatedly tried to tie him to the "Chicago machine" environment that shaped his early political career.
The critics have rarely succeeded. "Obama, to his credit, got through this system with very little mud on his suit," said David Mendell, a Chicago journalist and the author of an Obama biography.
Obama aides say the president-elect and Blagojevich had no real political relationship beyond a few Obama statements supporting the governor's campaign. They said Obama wasn't involved in the governor's 2002 race -- and that press reports indicating he was are inaccurate.
The Republican National Committee, however, circulated some of Obama's statements to the press on Tuesday, including a 2006 report indicating Obama said he would be happy to work for Blagojevich's 2006 re-election campaign, even though the Illinois governor was under investigation. "If the governor asks me to work on his behalf, I'll be happy to do it," a suburban Chicago newspaper quoted Obama as saying. It was unclear Tuesday, however, how much, if any, work Obama actually did on behalf of the Illinois governor's candidacy.
Obama's incoming chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, succeeded Blagojevich in the U.S. House in 2003. But transition officials said Blagojevich wasn't involved in Emanuel's successful bid to take over that seat.
Axelrod was also close to Blagojevich, although the two men appear to have gone their separate ways in 2002, when Blagojevich ran for governor against the advice of his former political guru, Mendell said.
Patrick Fitzgerald, the chief federal prosecutor in Chicago, said repeatedly Tuesday that there are no allegations Obama knew the seat he relinquished on Nov. 16 was up for sale.
But there are clearly some uncomfortable questions for Obama. Asked Tuesday in Chicago whether he had been in contact with Blagojevich about the job, Obama said, "I had no contact with the governor or his office and so we were not, I was not aware of what was happening."
But Axelrod said on Chicago television Nov. 23 that the two had spoken. Asked if Obama had expressed a preference, Axelrod said he had not, but also said: "I know he's talked to the governor. And...there are a whole range of names, many of which have surfaced, and he's, I think he has a fondness for a lot of them."
On Tuesday, Axelrod said: "I was mistaken when I told an interviewer last month that the president-elect has spoken directly to Gov. Blagojevich about the Senate vacancy. They did not then or at any time discuss the subject."