Today, the Weekend Reader brings you Only in Chicago: How the Rod Blagojevich Scandal Engulfed Illinois and Enthralled the Nation by Natasha Korecki, a political reporter for the Chicago-Sun Times. The excerpt below focuses on the former governor’s trial after he was indicted for soliciting bribes in exchange for political appointments, including the vacant Senate seat once held by Barack Obama. Blagojevich was convicted on corruption charges in 2012 and is now serving a 14-year sentence in federal prison.
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Blagojevich testified at one point that former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert told him to get something for himself in exchange for the Senate seat.
“Get your quid pro quo and make it a twofer,” Blagojevich alleged
Hastert said to him. What Hastert meant, Blagojevich continued, was that he should appoint someone like Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White or Lisa Madigan—a state official—so he could also appoint a replacement for their positions, thus getting a “two-for-one” appointment. Blagojevich said he had a “very close relationship” with Hastert, whom he saw as a “seasoned veteran” and “the coach you wanted to always impress.”
While discussing his November 2008 meeting with Tom Balanoff, Blagojevich explained that appointing Obama’s apparent choice, Valerie Jarrett, seemed like a giveaway. Meanwhile, he said, he would be stuck back in Illinois with legislative leader Michael Madigan blocking his every move in the legislature. He felt this would only get worse if he didn’t name Madigan’s daughter to the seat.
“I’d be worse than a lame duck, because in addition to the existing gridlock, I wouldn’t have made his daughter a senator” when he had the chance to, he said.
Eventually, Blagojevich got around to what he called the “phrase heard ’round the world”: “I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking golden, and I’m just not giving it up for fucking nothing.”
What did he mean by this?
Many observers might have expected Blagojevich’s reply to be practiced. But he tripped over his words.
“Well, that’s the, that’s, uh, the Senate seat,” Blagojevich stumbled. “I was saying that this opportunity is effin’ golden and that’s what I was saying, and I don’t want to give it up for nothing, so we had these discussions.”
Goldstein pressed: what did he mean?
“I’m afraid to answer this,” Blagojevich responded. “I’d like to answer it. I’m not sure how to answer it.…In my mind, I didn’t know,” Blagojevich said. “I had no idea, other than all these different ideas that we were throwing around, and I was trying to figure out what, if anything, could possibly be part of a deal for the Senate seat. And I didn’t know and that’s why I was talking about it.”
Blagojevich tried to persuade the jury that in his taped conversation with Balanoff, he was not demanding one thing for another, but that he had “floated the idea” of getting a cabinet post as they discussed Jarrett’s appointment.
Balanoff was, after all, the same man Obama had called and given the green light to talk to Blagojevich about appointing Jarrett to the U.S. Senate.
Blagojevich said that while talking to Balanoff, he hesitated and explained his own personal and political predicament if he appointed Jarrett and he got nothing.
“You all go to Washington, D.C., doing all this historic, beautiful stuff on healthcare and I’m left behind. I gotta consider those dynamics, too,” Blagojevich said he told Balanoff, referring to the prospect of remaining in gridlocked Illinois politics while so many other leading figures in Illinois Democratic politics went to Washington.
“He said he understood.”
Then Blagojevich made the ask: Could he possibly get a cabinet position; specifically, could he be named to head up Health and Human Services?
“You could just see the embarrassment in his face,” Blagojevich said of Balanoff. “’You have no chance at that. It’s not going to happen for you.’ I felt so uncomfortable for how he looked.”
Blagojevich described the conversation as “a bad try.” He denied ever pushing it further or saying he’d only appoint Jarrett if he got something in return.
“I did not want to convey a promise to Tom Balanoff…I floated the idea,” Blagojevich said. “He was quick to honestly reject it as being unrealistic.”