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Page last updated at 11:24 GMT, Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Washington diary: Chicago tales

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

When will the Illinois prison authorities finally grasp the nettle and open a governors' wing in Chicago's premier jail?

Governor Rod Blagojevich (centre) on 8 December 2008
Mr Blagojevich has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing

If convicted, Governor Rod Blagojevich will follow in a long and established line of former governors who have served time in both office and jail.

Governor Otto Kerner was governor from 1961 to 1968 and served slightly less than a year in 1973 for bribery and fraud.

Governor Dan Walker served in office from 1973 to 1977 and in jail for 18 months on charges of bank fraud and perjury.

Governor William Stratton ran Illinois from 1953 to 1961 and was later indicted but acquitted for tax evasion.

Governor George Ryan, who was Governor Blagojevich's immediate predecessor is still IN jail, completing a six-and-a-half-year sentence on, yes you've guessed it, wire fraud and bribery.

'Stranger than fiction'

The charges against Rod Blagojevich essentially come in two bundles.

There's the stuff you might expect. Mr Blagojevich had been investigated for several years on charges of corruption dealing with bog-standard accusations of extorting campaign contributions in return for state contracts in the so-called "pay to play" scandal.

Then there are the charges that look as if they might have hailed from the Mugabe masterclass of sleaze.

It is one of the many quirks of the US political system that governors can be empowered to appoint replacements to vacant Senate seats

He is accused of trying to force the venerable Chicago Tribune newspaper into favourable coverage with the threat of hampering the sale of their key real estate asset, Wrigley Field, a Chicago sports stadium.

But the most lurid accusation belongs in the "stranger than fiction" category.

This is that Governor Rod essentially put a "For Sale" sign on the Illinois Senate seat vacated by the victorious Barack Obama.

Mr Blagojevich is taped saying that "you don't just give it away for nothing…"

The "something" that the governor was allegedly mulling ranged from an ambassadorship, to a cabinet post, to money for his campaign, to a directorship for his wife or perhaps to all of the above.

Did he really think that he could get any of these from an incoming administration that requires applicants for jobs to fill out a rigorous 63-point questionnaire, including questions about all improper e-mails ever sent?

If the ambassadorships and cabinet posts weren't forthcoming Rod Blagojevich was even, it is alleged, prepared to appoint HIMSELF to the seat in the august US Senate.

All this at a time when every vote of this exclusive club will be crucial for re-landscaping America's stricken economy.

It is one of the many quirks of the US political system that state legislatures can empower governors to appoint temporary replacements to vacant Senate seats.

Dawn arrest

There are many astonishing details about this story.

Abraham Lincoln, in an undated photo
Abraham Lincoln's name has been reverberating recently

One is the form of the arrest. Usually white-collar crime at this level leads to velvet incarceration negotiated by lawyers, carried out with some sensitive stage managing where justice and dignity are allowed to go hand in hand.

Not so this week in Chicago. Mr Blagojevich was arrested at 6am, while the Windy City was still bathed in frozen darkness.

Patrick Fitzgerald, the chief prosecutor who rose to fame a few years ago when he took on Vice President Dick Cheney and his former chief of staff Scooter Libby, was concerned that the governor might do something rash, like appoint a new senator.

So he had him hauled behind bars before dawn like a Mafioso.

What is it about Chicago and crime? The city has produced both Al Capone and Eliot Ness and his Untouchables.

Whiffing that something was afoot, Governor Blagojevich had earlier mocked reports of a "sneaky wiretap".

It smacked of Nixon and Watergate, he snapped, flicking his boyish mane of hair and wearing his trademark black leather coat, adding that he himself had nothing to hide.

Another detail of this unfolding story is the use of the word "bleep".

When describing the wording of the wiretap, the patrician Mr Fitzgerald, who has the earnestness of a high school geography teacher, said that Rod Blagojevich called the Obama Senate seat "bleeping valuable."

Bleeps peppered the state prosecutor's indictment who found it necessary to explain that "bleep" meant something different in this context.

Rod Blagojevich, who started his professional life washing dishes and shining shoes, has always prided himself on his vernacular.

Unwelcome distraction

Finally it's been a busy few years, posthumously, that is, for Abraham Lincoln.

Barack Obama makes a statement about Governor Blagojevich
Mr Obama said he was "saddened" by news of the allegations

Barack Obama evoked the spirit of Honest Abe when he announced his candidacy for the White House in Springfield, the state capital of Illinois in 2007.

In recent months we have been force-fed comparisons between two politicians who cut their milk teeth in Illinois politics.

Abraham Lincoln went on to transform America and earn his place on Mount Rushmore. Could Barack Obama do the same?

The emerging Obama cabinet has been compared to Lincoln's team of rivals. And now Abe has been mentioned again. This time in less salubrious company.

The charges against Governor Blagojevich would make Abraham Lincoln "roll over in his grave", Mr Fitzgerald told reporters.

The latest scandal has become an unwelcome distraction for the man whose US Senate seat the governor is said to have tried to sell to the highest bidder.

President-elect Obama has said that he had had no contact with Mr Blagojevich's office and that it was a sad day for Illinois.


At least no one can fault Rod's apparent uncanny reading of the polls. He allegedly started thinking about selling Obama's Senate seat a day before the election.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News Americawhich airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).

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