Prosecutor: Blagojevich Engaged in 'Political Corruption Crime Spree'

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald on Tuesday accused Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich of participating in a "political corruption crime spree" that was a blatant effort to sell the state's U.S. Senate seat in the latest "pay-to-play" scheme in Illinois politics.

Fitzgerald described the alleged behavior by Blagojevich, who was arrested Tuesday morning along with his chief of staff, John Harris, as "appalling." He said his "cynical behavior" reached "a truly new low."

"He has been arrested in the middle of what we can only describe as a political corruption crime spree," Fitzgerald said in a news conference to announce the charges against the governor and his chief of staff. "This is a sad day for government. It's a very sad day for Illinois government. Governor Blagojevich has taken us to a truly new low."

The arrest is part of a three-year probe into the governor's administration. The criminal complaint by the FBI says each man was arrested on two charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and solicitation of bribery.

FBI Special Agent-in-Charge in Chicago Robert Grant said he was asked by reporters when he first started the investigation "whether or not Illinois is the most corrupt state in the United States."

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"And I didn't answer that question, yes or no, and I can't answer that question today. I don't have 49 other states to compare it with.But I can tell you one thing: If it isn't the most corrupt state in the United States, its certainly one hell of a competitor," he said.

The series of allegations say that Blagojevich and Harris tried to sell President-elect Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder. Fitzgerald quoted Blagojevich recorded during court-authorized wiretaps as saying, "It's a 'bleeping' valuable thing. You just don't give it away for nothing."

Fitzgerald said no allegations were being made that Obama was aware of any alleged scheming by Blagojevich.

The prosecutor added that the two men allegedly schemed with previously convicted defendants Antonin Rezko, Stuart Levine, Ali Ata and others to arrange financial benefits in exchange for appointments to state boards and commissions, state employment, state contracts and access to state funds.

The charges also allege that Blagojevich tried to influence the composition of The Chicago Tribune editorial board in exchange for state aid to the Tribune Company, which owns the newspaper.

Fitzgerald said Blagojevich was recorded in wiretaps as saying, "Fire all those 'bleeping' people, get them the bleep out of there and get us some support."

The prosecutor also cited another instance in which Blagojevich allegedly said he wanted to pull back $8 million in funding from the Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago because he did not receive a $50,000 personal contribution he had wanted from the hospital.

Blagojevich and Harris had their initial court appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Nan Nolan in Chicago on Tuesday. They were released on $4,500 signature bonds and must turnover their passports, any firearms and firearms ownership IDs.

The governor spoke little and was wearing the running clothes he had on when he was arrested at his home at 7 a.m. ET. Harris wore a suit and tie. Both men said they understood the crimes with which they were charged.

In an earlier statement Fitzgerald said, "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."

Grant noted that Blagojevich was elected in 2002 after Illinois Gov. George Ryan retired in the face of looming federal corruption charges. Ryan was convicted and sentenced in 2006 to six and a half years in prison.

Grant said he had hoped that Ryan's conviction "would send a clear single to elected officials in Illinois that business-as-usual will no longer be tolerated, that selling your office for personal gain is a -- is a practice of the past. It's obvious by this complaint and by today's charges that this current governor did not get that message."

Fitzgerald said federal authorities obtained permission to wiretap the governor secretly a month and a half ago, and the recordings yielded a variety of details on Blagojevich's alleged wheeling and dealing.

He said the 76-page FBI affidavit alleges that Blagojevich was taped conspiring to sell or trade Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat for financial and other personal benefits for himself and his wife, including an annual salary of $250,000-$300,000 at a nonprofit foundation or an organization affiliated with labor unions.

The prosecutor alleged that Blagojevich is heard on tape demanding a corporate board seat for his wife worth as much as $150,000 a year; promises of campaign funds, including cash up front; and the post of secretary of health and human services or an ambassadorship for himself in the Obama administration.

Informed Monday of the wiretap, Blagojevich told reporters that his discussions were "always lawful" and said taping him was akin to Watergate and President Nixon.

"I should say if anybody wants to tape my conversations, go right ahead, feel free to do it," he said.

The Chicago Tribune was first to report the arrests. The Tribune was named in the affidavit because tapes allegedly recorded Blagojevich directing Harris to inform the newspaper's owners and advisers that "state financial assistance would be withheld unless members of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board were fired, primarily because Blagojevich viewed them as driving discussion of his possible impeachment."

The Tribune Company, which declared bankruptcy on Monday, owns The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Cubs, and had explored the possibility of obtaining assistance from the Illinois Finance Authority as part of the effort to sell the Cubs and finance the sale of Wrigley Field.

Conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Solicitation of bribery carries a maximum of 10 years in prison. Both carry a maximum fine of $250,000.

Grant said when he called to inform Blagojevich he was under arrest Tuesday morning, the Illinois governor was "very cooperative."

In a statement released Tuesday, Illinois Republican Party Chairman Andy McKenna called for Blagojevich to resign.

"For the good of the state, and in the interest of the taxpayers, the Illinois Republican Party calls on Governor Blagojevich to resign his office effective immediately," McKenna said.  "If Governor Blagojevich does not resign his position, we urge the General Assembly to move swiftly with impeachment proceedings."

Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin said the state Legislature should call a special election to fill Obama's seat rather than allow Blagojevich to appoint his successor.

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Click here to read the complaint against Blagojevich and Harris.

Click here to read the press statement by the U.S. attorney and FBI's offices.

Click here to read a biography of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.