Monday, June 27, 2011

Blagojevich verdicts may be impetus for more reforms

Another of Illinois’ past governors faces potential years behind bars after being convicted on the majority of the corruption charges he was facing. But some Illinois officials warn it is not yet time to close the book on the state’s history of corruption.

A jury today convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich on 17 out of 20 counts. The jury found him not guilty on one count connected to an alleged plot to squeeze campaign money from road construction firms before he would sign a tollway plan that would benefit some builders. The jury did not come to a verdict on another charge related to that scheme and one tied to an alleged attempt to strong-arm U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago, into arranging a Blagojevich fundraiser before the governor would release a grant to the Chicago Academy. The defense called Emanuel to testify in the former governor’s retrial. Prosecutors reportedly do not plan to retry Blagojevich on the two charges that they jury could not agree on.

The jury found Blagojevich guilty on charges related to his most well-known scheme, attempting to sell Barack Obama’s former Senate seat for personal or political gain. He was also convicted on charges relating to him trying to get representatives of the horse racing industry to trade campaign contributions for his signature on a bill that would benefit them, as well as holding up legislation related to funding in an attempt to extort campaign contributions from the chief operating officer of Children’s Memorial Hospital.

“There’s not much left to say other than we want to get home to our little girls,” Blagojevich told reporters as he left the federal courthouse today. He said he was “stunned” and wanted to go home to explain what happened to his two daughters and decide what to do next.

“I’m sure we’ll be seeing you guys again,” he quipped, alluding to a potential appeal. Blagojevich was allowed to go home today, but he is not allowed to travel out of the federal Northern District of Illinois without permission from Judge James Zagel, who has presided over both of Blagojevich’s trials.

In his first criminal trial, Blagojevich was convicted of one charge of lying to federal officers. That jury could not reach an agreement on 23 other counts. Blagojevich decided not to testify at that trial, but he spent days on the stand in his retrial. Sam Adam Jr., who represented Blagojevich in his first trial but not in the most recent one, said that he thinks the jury didn’t believe what the former governor said in his own defense. “It’s obvious that the jury wanted to make a statement, and they made a statement,” Adam told WLS-TV Chicago. “It just seems the jury in this particular case didn’t buy what he had to say.”

Adam said he thinks Blagojevich has grounds for an appeal based on the courts refusal to allow the defense to present some of the pieces of his recorded phone conservations. He added that Blagojevich was unable to “corroborate” his testimony with this barred evidence. “I think he’ll end up vindicated,’ Adam said. He said he would work on an appeal if tapped to do so.

Adam predicted that if an appeal is not successful, Blagojevich could be sentenced to between five and nine years for his convictions. “He’s looking at some serious time here.” Adam added that if Zagel determines that Blagojevich lied during his testimony, the sentence could be longer.

“I'm glad that the verdict is finally in on Rod Blagojevich. However, this closes only one chapter of Democrat corruption in Illinois. Illinois Democratic politicians who now try everything they can to hide their past support of Rod Blagojevich should look themselves in the mirror and remind themselves that little has changed since the day Blagojevich was arrested,” Illinois Republican Party Chair Pat Brady said in a prepared statement. Republicans will likely try to make Illinois Democrats, including President Barack Obama and anyone else who said something positive in the past about the now-convicted felon, live down the legacy of Blagojevich in the next few election cycles.

However, many Democrats have been distancing themselves from the former governor for years, so time will tell whetherf Blagojevich’s conviction will become effective campaign fodder.

"Once again, the former governor's pattern of dishonesty has been confirmed. I thank the jury for its public service. Just as it was sad but necessary for the Senate to remove him from office, today is another sad event for Illinois. I would hope that this verdict would further allow us as a state to move on and ahead,” Senate President John Cullerton said in a written response to the verdict.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno called on Illinois lawmakers to approve more reforms. In the wake of Blagojevich’s arrest, the General Assembly approved a campaign finance reform law that for the first time in Illinois caps the contributions politicians can accept. Lawmakers also enacted new ethics rules for state employees, as well as a new process for the way the state enters into contracts with vendors. However, Republicans have pushed for laws to lower campaign contribution caps and limit party contributions, with no gains over the last few years.

“It was clear that Rod Blagojevich conspired to use the governor's office for personal gain. He inflicted real, permanent damage on the state during his six years in office. Unfortunately, future generations will be paying for his administration for years to come,” Radogno said in a prepared statement. “I am as anxious as everyone to now put this sordid chapter in our state’s history behind us. But some will want to use this verdict to close the door on reform. Instead, it is our job as elected officials to make sure the public has confidence in the integrity of their government. We all have a responsibility to send a clear signal that Illinoisans do not need to tolerate even the appearance of conflicts of interest by elected officials.”

Gov. Pat Quinn agreed. “This is a serious day for our state,” Quinn said at a Chicago news conference. He said Blagojevich’s conviction, along with the previous conviction of former Gov. George Ryan on corruption charges, “underlines … for every person in Illinois the importance of reforming our government on a daily basis from top to bottom.”

He called for lawmakers to revisit several additional ethics provisions. Quinn said legislators should consider allowing open primaries in the state, imposing a mandatory “conflict of interest” requirement on themselves and extending the recall power to all elected offices. Quinn pushed a constitutional amendment approved last November, which allows Illinois voters to recall governors. “I also think that looking at campaign finance again is something worth trying,” he said.

Quinn renewed a call to allow citizens to present ethics laws through a voter initiative system. He tried to tack such a provision onto a bill through an amendatory veto last year, but lawmakers did not take up the veto for a vote. Experts said that the plan would likely not fit into the narrow voter initiative requirements in the state’s Constitution. This time, Quinn is calling for a constitutional amendment. “There’s a lot to be done. I’m sure there are many people with many ideas,” he said.

Quinn said he did not feel the need to apologize for supporting his former running mate in the past, saying Blagojevich had “deceived” him and others. “I have nothing to apologize for because I know I do things in an honest way.”

He said it is regrettable that two of his predecessors, Blagojevich and Ryan, may soon be behind bars. “I’m very sorry that happened to [the Blagojevich] family, but you have to be accountable for your deeds.”


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