Ill. Marks Strange Year Since Governor's Arrest

Tuesday, 08 Dec 2009 06:06 PM

 

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – When the news arrived, Rep. Bill Black thought at first it was somebody's lame idea of a joke. But it was true: The FBI had arrested the governor of Illinois, hauling him away wearing a track suit and handcuffs.

"I thought, holy mackerel, another glorious day for Illinois government," said Black, a Danville Republican.

The arrest of Rod Blagojevich took place a year ago Wednesday. Since then it's been one "holy mackerel" moment after another, some amusingly bizarre and some deadly serious.

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The Chicago Democrat was impeached and removed from office. He denied wrongdoing in a strange media blitz, becoming a national joke in the process. A close political ally committed suicide. He dispatched his wife to eat bugs on a reality TV show. He defied pretty much everyone by filling a vacant Senate seat.

Blagojevich even became, at least for one afternoon, an Elvis impersonator.

And the show isn't over yet.

The scandal could have a national impact by tipping a U.S. Senate seat — the one previously held by President Barack Obama — into Republican hands. The GOP also hopes to reclaim the governor's office, and they could be helped if Blagojevich stays in the spotlight with a role on "Celebrity Apprentice" next year and a federal trial during election season.

His legacy will also be felt in a major overhaul of Illinois ethics laws, including the first-ever caps on the size of campaign donations. New Gov. Pat Quinn plans to sign the legislation on the anniversary of Blagojevich's arrest as part of a Democratic effort to regain voters' trust.

Blagojevich's arrest on Dec. 9, 2008, didn't come out of the blue.

Federal prosecutors had long been investigating whether the governor, then in the middle of his second term, had used his official powers illegally — to pressure groups into making campaign contributions, for instance, or to award government jobs and contracts to political allies.

But for many, it was still shocking to think of the FBI showing up at a governor's door and taking him away in handcuffs to be fingerprinted and pose for a mugshot.

"It wasn't unanticipated, but it left me with a hollow spot in my stomach because it was our chief executive and the state had taken enough grief for its failures in the ethics department," said James Nowlan, a political science professor and former Illinois legislator.

Just as shocking were the charges.

Blagojevich was accused of trying to sell an appointment to fill the Senate vacancy created by Obama's move to the White House. Prosecutors said they had recordings of Blagojevich talking about demanding huge campaign contributions or a job for himself in exchange for the appointment.

"I've got this thing and it's (deleted) golden, and uh, uh, I'm just not giving it up for (deleted) nothing," he is quoted as saying.

The accusations went far beyond that.

Prosecutors accused Blagojevich of threatening to withhold government services from people and organizations — including a children's hospital — unless they made generous campaign contributions. He is accused of trying to use his office to pressure the Chicago Tribune into firing its editorial writers.

Prosecutors said that even before taking office, Blagojevich conspired with friends to split up the money they planned to make.

Illinois already had one ex-governor in prison, Republican George Ryan. The splashy charges against Ryan's successor cemented Illinois' reputation as America's most corrupt state.

State officials responded by tightening the law to cap the size of campaign donations and require politicians to report on their fundraising more often.

They voted to cap the size of campaign contributions at $5,000 for an individual. Politicians will have to report donations more frequently. State inspectors are getting more power to investigate tips and to announce their findings.

And the public will get to vote on changing the constitution so that corrupt governors can be recalled.

But officials decided against placing term limits on legislative leaders or capping the amount of money they can donate to candidates in general elections. They also decided against giving state prosecutors new tools to investigate corruption.

"Single-party Democratic rule has turned Illinois into an internal struggle for power and control. The insiders come first. The interests of the citizens don't count," Pat Brady, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, said in a statement Tuesday.

Democrats hope the voters see Blagojevich as one of a kind instead of a reflection on the entire party. Democrats control the governor's office, both U.S. Senate seats and a majority of legislative and congressional seats. So if the scandal feeds a disgust with politicians in general, that could mean bad news for Democrats.

"The unanswered question is: Has Blagojevich so contaminated the Democratic Party that we will get some major statewide Republican elected? Pre-Blago politics said it would be next to impossible to elect a Republican governor or senator or attorney general," said veteran political consultant Don Rose. "I think the mood of the state is very anti-politician."

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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