Sunday, December 9, 2018

Flashback 2008: The FBI hauls away Rod Blagojevich

Prison scene, by Francesco Piranesi (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
     Ten years ago today, FBI agents burst into Rod Blagojevich's Lincoln Park home at dawn and dragged the governor away in handcuffs. He remains in prison, a reminder that refusing to recognize your crime magnifies your punishment. It can be argued that Blagojevich wasn't guilty of anything beyond the vile horse-trading that goes on every day in politics at every level. But that isn't true. He was guilty of hubris, and stupidity: he did his vile horse trading into an open FBI wiretap, one that he knew was there, or at least should have suspected was there, and carried his shake-downs beyond the implied into the unescapable. And I had forgotten about him lashing out at Children's Memorial Hospital because its CEO didn't give him money. He should rot in jail for that alone. 
     I had seen the arrest coming—during the election I wrote that the race was really between Judy Baar Topinka and Pat Quinn, since Rod might end up in prison. But still it came as a shock and I think I processed it fairly well, raising the oft-repeated trope of four out of our past eight governors being in prison. I think it's sweet that I naively ran over to the Thompson Center, expecting some outward sign of our inner rot. I've kept the section headings the column had at the time. 


     As if the Tribune Co. filing for bankruptcy protection on Monday weren't shock enough for one week, today the FBI arrested Gov. Blagojevich and accused him of trying to sell the vacant U.S. Senate seat from Illinois.
     My God.
     The storm clouds were gathering around the self-proclaimed reformer for months. And yet news of the governor's sudden arrest was met with open-mouthed shock.
     I hurried over to the Thompson Center, where the state government offices are located.
     Silly me, I expected that stunned state workers might be congregating in small groups, pressing their palms to their cheeks in alarm.
     No way. Business as usual, in more ways than one. If these charges stick—and the feds do not arrest a sitting governor at dawn unless they feel confident about a case—Blagojevich will be the fourth Illinois governor to go to prison in the past 35 years (for those at home keeping score: George Ryan is in the slammer now for bribery; Dan Walker in the late 1980s for his role in the savings and loan mess, and Otto Kerner in the mid-1970s in the racetrack stock scandal).
     If Blagojevich ends up in a cell next to Ryan, that will mean four of our past eight governors have gone to prison. We're batting .500. That's a lousy average.
     And Blagojevich will be the worst of the bunch, not only because he alone was busted while still in power, but his alleged crime—trying to sell a seat in the U.S. Senate—dwarfs the penny-ante pocket lining of the others.
     There was no commotion at the Thompson Center. People lined up behind the metal detectors—we're better at screening those who would blow up the government from without than those who wreck it from within.
     Near the elevators, a big sign, "HAPPY HOLIDAYS" in red letters, two feet high.
     Underneath, "Governor Rod Blagojevich," written in an unmistakable cash green.


     U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said it all when he summed up the governor's "appalling" conduct:
     "Gov. Blagojevich has taken us to truly a new low," said Fitzgerald in his press conference today. "He attempted to sell a Senate seat."
     Nor was that all. Each detail jars more than the next. Blagojevich had a raft of other "pay-for-play" shakedown schemes. He tried to pull back $8 million for Children's Memorial Hospital because its CEO wouldn't contribute to his campaign coffers. He was stealing from sick children. He tried to get members of the Tribune editorial board fired.
     The actions that led to these charges transpired within the past few weeks—that's the most incredible part of all—long after a rational corrupt official would know that the heat is on and he should lie low. Any idiot, any speeding driver with half a brain, at least slows down when he passes a squad car with a radar gun out.
     Blago sped up. What could he have been thinking? And what should we be thinking now?
     "This is a moment of truth in Illinois," said Fitzgerald.
     Indeed it is. What next? We owe it to ourselves and to our children to be shocked, to be embarrassed, to be outraged and to look hard at this obscenity of governance—Blagojevich may be the man going to jail, but many others have a hand in this system. Every time a scandal erupts, we vow this time will be the end. If this doesn't lead to reform, nothing ever will.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times Dec. 9, 2008


  1. And in case anyone else has forgotten, Blago had proposed, nine months earlier, to spend forty million taxpayer dollars to demolish and replace a perfectly good auditorium on the NIU campus in the wake of the St. Valentine's Day mass shooting that left five students dead. He was immediately hooted down, not only by outraged alumni (including this one), but by ordinary Illinois citizens who would have had to pony up the money for a new building and some kind of hideous state-designed memorial that probably would have looked like it belonged in East Germany.

    "Tear Blago down instead!" read an outraged comment following the Tribune story. Illinois didn't have to do that--he tore himself down, big-time. And Cole Hall is still standing and still in daily use. The demented jerk who killed there will never kill my fond memories of classes, films, and other events in that building, almost fifty years ago. Blago deserved everything he got, and I hope he stays in that slammer until he's wrinkled and gray. What a dirtbag!

    1. Grizz, the first letter to the editor I ever wrote and sent to the Sun-Times, was about the shortsightedness of the proposed demolition of Cole Hall. The letter was published. I thought I was hot shit and started writing on a regular basis. On average they used every third letter, for a long time.

    2. Now it can be told: "Tear Blago down!" was my comment on the Trib's website.

    3. Sometimes it helps when we make noise.

    4. A lot of folks made a lot of noise. One of the best replies was "Time heals...not bulldozers." The building was renovated and re-purposed. And the memorial garden and sculpture are quiet, sobering, simple and understated.

    5. Good to know. I haven't been on campus since my dad got his doctorate about 30 years ago.

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    1. The problem with Blago was that he was a narcissist and thought he could get away with anything. He got too cocky. But I still think it's time for him to be released now.

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  4. I'm just as disgusted with myself as I am with him, because I voted for the bastard twice. By the second time, I knew or at least had an inkling what a callow jerk he was (although I didn't know the depth of his corruption). But I voted for him anyway, even though I'd met Judy Topinka and liked her personally, because I was afraid that her much-vaunted "frugality" would translate into starving social programs of funding.

    Boy, would I like to have those votes back.

  5. The case for his release vs. serving the full sentence is so balanced that a consensus among reasonable people is probably impossible. The damage to his family is the only factor that mitigates for a pardon in my mind. That he went down is path despite the pain it could cause his daughters indicates his stupidity. Like Tiger Woods, Blago was in the spotlight, which should have warned both of them to be on their best behavior. His daughters I feel for, Patti, not so much. Maybe I am too harsh for her groveling at Trumps feet, claiming innocence for both. Blago is to blame for this as well, his wife like a defeated war widow having to prostitute herself to feed what is left of her family.

  6. Blagojevich's crimes and poor executive decisions seems to be too many to count. In one case the CTA came to Springfield asking for 40 million to make up revenue shortfall. Of course it's approved, but Blogo held it up on the condition that senior citizens go from half fare to free rides. All during his trial and sentencing to improve his image, Rod boasted that he gave free rides to seniors. The resulting additional revenue shortfall meant more cuts to owl service. Richard Roeper had an excellent idea, as a condition of his parole Blogo will have to pull a rickshaw around giving free rides to seniors.


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