Lawyers didn't invent the insanity defense for guys like Rod Blagojevich, but it may soon come in handy. As recently as last month, the leather-jacket-wearing Illinois governor imagined himself as a potential candidate for President in 2016. Meantime, he said, he wouldn't mind getting a Cabinet post, an ambassadorship or even a high-paying corporate gig. Driving these fantasies was his statutory power to name a replacement for former Senator Barack Obama a power that to Blagojevich seemed like money in the bank. "I've got this thing, and it's f______ golden," he told an aide a day after the November elections on a home phone that was tapped by the FBI. "I'm just not giving it up for f______ nothing."
Blagojevich, 52, was either delusional, stupid or some combination of both. The feds had been on his case for years, and he knew it. Early on the morning of Dec. 9, federal Marshals woke him up with a predawn phone call, then arrived at his front door and handcuffed him shortly thereafter. By the afternoon, he stood in a Chicago courtroom looking like a common criminal, his feathered hair out of place, his executive wardrobe replaced with a black-and-blue Nike tracksuit. He faces the prospect of 30 years in prison on charges of conspiring to commit mail and wire fraud and soliciting bribes. (Read TIME's top 10 political lines of 2008.)
His alleged crimes were as outrageous as his inflated sense of self, the sort of behavior we expect of Hollywood villains, not Midwestern governors. He was accused not just with conspiring to solicit bribes but with conspiring to solicit bribes from the next President of the United States. He was accused not merely with planning extortion but with trying to force the Tribune Co. to fire editorial writers in exchange for a tax break worth about $100 million. According to authorities, he even threatened to revoke millions in funding for a Chicago children's hospital if its CEO did not pay his campaign a $50,000 tribute. The full buffet of alleged graft was laid out in a 76-page federal complaint that described the sort of corruption superheroes battle in comic books.
And as is often the case in graphic novels, there was no time for the hero to lose. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald began wiretapping the governor in mid-October and by mid-November could hear that Obama's old seat was being auctioned to the highest bidder. Fitzgerald feared that the longer Blagojevich remained as governor, the more likely he would name someone to replace Obama in exchange for a bribe. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant, as Justice Brandeis said," explained Robert Litt, who served in the Justice Department under Bill Clinton. "By bringing this all out into the open, Fitzgerald is making the assumption that nobody would dare cut a deal with Blagojevich now, and he himself will be deterred from making one. And if he is stripped of his power to make the appointment, all the better."
The Blagojevich scandal will prove to be a distraction for Obama, a Chicago pol made good who was hoping to put old-fashioned Chicago politics in his rearview mirror. The criminal complaint produced no evidence that Obama or his aides have done anything wrong. Blagojevich was, in fact, recorded complaining that Obama's people were "not willing to give me anything except appreciation." Obama himself maintains that he never talked to Blagojevich about the Senate seat, and during the recent campaign, the two men kept their distance from each other.
But the President-elect's political universe overlaps uncomfortably with the Illinois governor's seamy world of swagger, cussing and kickbacks. Obama's new chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, once boasted that he and Obama had worked closely with Blagojevich on his 2002 election, which was billed as a reformist campaign a claim that Obama aides deny and Emanuel has since retracted as "wrong." As recently as 2006, Obama told a reporter he had concerns about allegations of corruption involving state Democrats, though he added that he would be "happy" to work to support the governor's re-election bid.