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The criminal complaint, meanwhile, is riddled with mysterious references to unidentified political aides, fundraisers, potential Senate candidates and even a union official who could bring legal scrutiny uncomfortably close to the new Administration. Federal wiretaps picked up an unnamed official of the Service Employees International Union, an early endorser of Obama's, who was apparently entertaining Blagojevich's idea of creating a new nonprofit organization that could pay the governor a salary if he picked a certain candidate for the Senate seat and then retired to private life. The union official was recorded agreeing to "put that flag up and see where it goes." The union denies any wrongdoing.
In a different incident, Blagojevich spoke of an emissary from a potential Senate appointee, named by the feds as "Senate Candidate 5" but who has since been identified as Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. The emissary, according to the governor, offered to arrange as much as $1.5 million in future campaign contributions in exchange for the Senate seat. For Blagojevich, the price was right, but the timing was wrong, say prosecutors. Blagojevich didn't want to wait until the next election for the money to arrive. He wanted to see a down payment right away. "Some of this stuff has gotta start happening now," the governor barked to his aide regarding campaign contributions. "And we gotta see it. You understand?" Apparently aware of the illegality of the demand, he told his aide to turn the screws in person, not over the phone. Jackson has denied initiating or authorizing any such offer and has promised full cooperation with prosecutors.
Neither Blagojevich nor any of the power brokers who spoke with him in recent weeks should underestimate Fitzgerald, the no-nonsense federal prosecutor who brought down vice-presidential aide Lewis (Scooter) Libby in 2007 and has a record of following facts wherever they lead, flipping criminals into witnesses and forcing reporters behind bars if they don't give up their sources. Fitzgerald has made clear that his investigation is far from complete. In his probe of public corruption in Illinois, he has already brought charges against 15 people, including Blagojevich's predecessor, former governor George Ryan. "If it isn't the most corrupt state in the United States, it's certainly one hell of a competitor," says FBI special agent Robert Grant.
Dick Simpson, a former local elected official who now teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, counts hundreds of politicians who have been sent to jail since 1971, including 30 aldermen and three of the past seven governors. "The whole mess has to be taken in context," he explains. But even by Chicago standards, Blagojevich seems especially kleptocratic, according to prosecutors. He tried to shake down highway contractors, job seekers and health-care administrators. He talked of holding up bill-signings in exchange for favors and seemed not to understand when his targets balked at his demands. When the CEO of Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital failed to return phone calls regarding a campaign contribution, Blagojevich began investigating ways to deny the hospital funding. "What do we do with this guy?" he mused.
Blagojevich didn't work alone. When the Tribune Co. needed his O.K. to sell Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs, he included in the price tag a demand that Tribune executives fire editorial writers who Blagojevich felt had it in for the governor. During one call, Blagojevich's wife Patti can be heard calling out from the background, "Hold up that f______ Cubs s___ ... F___ them." Though the message was apparently transmitted to corporate representatives, the Chicago Tribune said none of Blagojevich's critics were pressured to leave.
Through his lawyer, Blagojevich maintained his innocence, and he showed up to work a day later even while on bail. Most Democrats in the state, not to mention Obama and Senator Dick Durbin, are calling for his resignation, and the Illinois legislature is moving to strip him of the statutory power to name Obama's successor. Until either occurs, Obama's old seat will remain vacant. The son of a steelworker, who shined shoes and boxed in his youth, Blagojevich is nothing if not a fighter, and he has battled his way out of pinches before. But a criminal trial is a bout far above his normal weight, especially when the accused is the chief witness against himself.
With reporting by Eric Ferkenhoff and Steven Gray / Chicago