CHICAGO – The scandal surrounding the senate seat of president-elect Barack Obama looked set to shadow his first months in office after prosecutors Wednesday asked for more time to bring charges against the governor accused of trying to sell the coveted post.
The motion came a day after Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich defied Democratic party leaders by appointing a respected African American statesman to the vacated seat.
Senate Democrats have vowed to block the appointment, saying former Illinois attorney general Roland Burris would "serve under a shadow and be plagued by questions of impropriety," but it is unclear if they have the legal right to do so.
A lengthy legal battle would be an unwelcome distraction from the task of passing a much-needed economic stimulus package and may also be politically unappetizing given there are currently no black senators.
Illinois congressman and civil rights leader Bobby Rush used racially tinged language in urging Senate Democrats to reconsider Tuesday, saying they should "not hang and lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer."
But while Obama joined senate leaders in calling again for the Democratic governor to step aside and allow a successor untainted by scandal make the appointment, Blagojevich continued to loudly proclaim his innocence.
Blagojevich's lawyer has aggressively fought an inquiry by state lawmakers into whether there are sufficient grounds for removing the governor through impeachment and it could be weeks or months until state lawmakers reach a final decision.
That could also leave the senate seat in limbo, weakening the Democratic majority as Obama prepares to fight for an aggressive legislative agenda after taking office on January 20.
While Obama is not accused of any wrongdoing and said an internal review found his team had no "inappropriate" contacts with the governor's office, his incoming chief of staff has come under fire for discussing the seat with Blagojevich.
More details could be revealed as early as next week if a judge allows prosecutors to release transcripts of FBI wiretaps to the impeachment inquiry in which Blagojevich allegedly discusses how he can profit from the senate appointment.
Partial transcripts released in the 76-page criminal complaint showed that Obama's staff were offering nothing more than "appreciation" to Blagojevich -- much to the foul-mouthed frustration of the governor, who wanted a cabinet post at the very least.
US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald indicated in the motion filed Wednesday that more people could eventually be charged in the case, which accuses Blagojevich and his chief of staff of engaging in a years-long pattern of "pay-to-play" politics in which he traded state contracts for campaign contributions.
That could return the case to national headlines and reveal more unappetizing details about the state of politics in Obama's home state.
Fitzgerald asked a federal judge to give him until April 7 to seek an indictment from a grand jury so his team would have time to pour through thousands of intercepted conversations and interview witnesses who have come forward in the wake of Blagojevich's December 9 arrest.
Blagojevich, who has said he "can't wait" to clear his name in court, did not object to the prosecutor's request for a delay, according to the motion filed Wednesday.
Should a grand jury determine that there is sufficient evidence to support the fraud and bribery charges it will likely be months or possibly years before the case goes to trial.
However, the indictment will likely contain fresh allegations and more details could trickle out in pre-trial motions and arguments that will likely be closely watched.
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