CHICAGO -- A partner in a prominent, Washington-based political consulting firm is among those secretly recorded discussing ways Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich can cash in on President Barack Obama's old Senate seat.
Frederick S. Yang, a top executive at Peter D. Hart Research Group Associates, is identified by prosecutors in the Blagojevich criminal complaint as "Adviser B," Michael D. Ettinger, a lawyer representing the governor's brother, said Thursday. Robert Blagojevich, who has not been charged with a crime, runs his brother's campaign fund.
The Hart firm has represented dozens of Democratic governors and members of Congress. The revelation that a key executive at the company was captured on FBI wiretaps working with the governor could embroil one of the nation's most respected and influential polling and consulting groups in the Blagojevich scandal.
Blagojevich is accused of using his elected office to exchange official actions for favors, including offering Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder.
The intercepted discussions between Yang, who has not been charged, and the governor involved ways to secure Blagojevich a high-paying union job or persuade Obama to name him secretary of Health and Human Services in exchange for Valerie Jarrett's appointment to succeed Obama in the Senate.
The Associated Press first contacted Yang in mid-December to request comment and confirm his role in the conversations cited in the complaint against Blagojevich. But he declined on multiple occasions.
"I can't talk," he said Dec. 13 when approached outside his Bethesda, Md., home and shown a copy of the complaint, which makes 16 references to "Adviser B" in five telephone conversations with Blagojevich.
Blagojevich, charged with two counts tied to fraud and bribery, has long been a client of Peter D. Hart Research and its political division, Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group. Partner Geoff Garin served as chief strategist for Hillary Clinton's unsuccessful presidential run. Hart and Garin also have declined repeated requests for comment from the AP since mid-December.
In a Nov. 7 recorded conversation characterized by prosecutors, Yang told Blagojevich he "should leverage the President-elect's desire to have 'Senate Candidate 1' (Jarrett) appointed to the Senate seat in order to get a head position" with a union organization called Change to Win.
Ettinger and other defense lawyers believe they can show Blagojevich's actions, and those working with him, were not criminal, just part of ordinary horse-trading in politics. Ettinger said prosecutors have many secretly recorded tapes that could shed more light on the Blagojevich's actions, including as many as 50 taped conversations with his brother.
Yang's discussions with Blagojevich, as characterized by prosecutors in the 76-page criminal complaint against the governor, are not proof of a crime, Ettinger said. The governor is caught on tape using profanity and expressing frustrations, but without more details it's impossible to know what, if any, crime was committed, he said.
"What is beating your chest and what did you really do?" Ettinger said.
Obama released a report late last month stating no one on his staff discussed favors with Blagojevich, or had any idea he was seeking favors for the Senate appointment, which has since gone to longtime Illinois politician Roland Burris. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel spoke to Blagojevich and others about the Senate seat, but said in a television interview this week he never got the impression that Blagojevich wanted anything improper in return.
Between 2001 and 2006, Blagojevich's campaign paid Peter D. Hart Research $1.3 million, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.
All "Adviser B" references are contained in the complaint's final section, which focuses on evidence that Blagojevich conspired with his chief of staff, John Harris, "and others," to sell off Obama's Senate seat. Harris, charged with the governor, has discussed a cooperation agreement with prosecutors, but has not yet decided to serve as a government witnesss, his lawyer, James Sotos, said last week.
During the first call cited in the Blagojevich complaint that included Yang, on Nov. 7, the governor told Harris and Yang, "I want to make money." He said he'd take a cabinet post or the Change to Win job in return for Jarrett's appointment.
Yang also participated in a Nov. 12 call where the formation of nonprofit organization was discussed, with the hope that Blagojevich could hold a high-paying position. Yang suggested the union job would lead to less questions and scrutiny for Obama, the complaint states.
"Adviser B stated that he likes the ... idea, but liked the Change to Win option better because, according to Adviser B, from the President-elect's perspective, there would be fewer 'fingerprints' on the President-elect's involvement with Change to Win," the complaint says.
Yang noted that Change to Win already has a revenue stream, meaning Blagojevich "won't have stories in four years that they bought you off."
Garin-Hart-Yang represents 12 senators, 18 House members and six governors, while Hart Research conducts public opinion polling for a number of major media organizations, according to the firm's Web site.
The union organization that figures in the complaint, Change to Win, is a 6 million-member coalition of unions that was started in 2005. Its members include the Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters and the United Farm Workers of America. Tom Balanoff, an official at SEIU's Local 1 in Chicago, has been identified as the SEIU official mentioned several times in the Blagojevich complaint, including being identified as "an emissary" for the appointment of Jarrett.
SEIU is listed as a client of Peter D. Hart Research, which has conducted surveys for Change to Win, according to a union news release.