Swimming in Chicago's cesspool

The Blagojevich saga of corruption and venality has just begun

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What does Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich have to trade for a lighter sentence? Pondering this question is, I suspect, keeping many prominent people in Chicago awake nights.

Mr. Blagojevich is accused of conspiring to sell government favors for personal benefit. But his great crime, in the eyes of many politicians, is that he has made "pay to play" all too easy for ordinary people to understand, and too ugly for them to ignore.

"While what Blagojevich did is undeniably beyond the pale, it is frankly much more common in the political world than anyone has been willing to acknowledge," Democratic pollster Douglas Schoen wrote in Forbes magazine Thursday.

"Play to pay" scandals tend to get little attention not so much because they are commonplace (though they are) as because they are boring. Details about how a real estate developer received an easement or an appointment to a zoning commission tend to make the eyes of jurors -- and journalists -- glaze over.

But "Hot Rod" tried to sell Barack Obama's seat in the U.S. Senate. He held up an appropriation for a children's hospital to extort a $50,000 contribution from a hospital executive. He tried to have journalists at the Chicago Tribune fired for writing editorials critical of him. The FBI has Mr. Blagojevich on tape, incriminating himself in vulgar, profane language.

Hot Rod's brazen overreach is shocking, which is one reason why this scandal is likely to have longer legs than any since Monica Lewinsky's trysts with President Bill Clinton.

But how does this differ materially from Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., killing a tax bill after the CEO of a company that would have been adversely affected donated $1 million to the Charles B. Rangel School of Public Service at the City College of New York?

And how does it differ materially from the pardon President Bill Clinton issued to fugitive financier Marc Rich after Mr. Rich, through his ex-wife, contributed massive sums to the Democratic Party and to the Clinton library?

Yet Mr. Rangel is still chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and Eric Holder -- who was excoriated by a congressional committee for his role in granting the Rich pardon -- is Mr. Obama's attorney general-designate. Rod Blagojevich is just the tip of a very large iceberg, one that encompasses local, state and national governments.

The other big reason why this scandal has legs is, of course, the relationship between Hot Rod and the president-elect. Conservatives tend to exaggerate it, while liberals pretend it doesn't exist.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Blagojevich shared a patron -- convicted financier Antoin "Tony" Rezko -- and Mr. Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, were senior advisers to Hot Rod during his campaign for governor in 2002.

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald went to great lengths to make it clear that Mr. Obama is not a subject of the investigation into the charges for which Mr. Blagojevich was arrested Tuesday. Mr. Obama, moreover, had to be heartened by the obscenity with which Hot Rod described him in a taped telephone conversation Nov. 11, which made it clear that the Obama camp would offer Mr. Blagojevich nothing but thanks if he appointed the candidate Mr. Obama preferred to succeed him, Valerie Jarrett.

This makes the president-elect's dissembling puzzling. "I had no contact with the governor or his office so I was not aware of what was happening," Mr. Obama told reporters Tuesday.

It's perfectly plausible Mr. Obama himself had not spoken to Hot Rod about his former Senate seat, but it strains credulity to believe an Obama aide would reject Mr. Blagojevich's overture without telling Mr. Obama about it.

Also, a footnote in the criminal complaint indicates Mr. Rezko has been cooperating with authorities. A real estate specialist told The Washington Times the FBI had interviewed him about the property the Obamas purchased from Mr. Rezko's wife.

At any rate, Hot Rod Blagojevich's outrageous conduct, above all, has shined an unwelcome spotlight on Chicago Democratic politics. It's hard to swim in that cesspool and come out smelling like a rose. This story has just begun.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette ( jkelly@post-gazette.com , 412 263-1476).


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