Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Obama's First Potential Scandal

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested by the FBI this morning. According the the press release put out by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who is the man who successfully prosecuted former Cheney Chief of Staff Scooter Libby, he was attempting to sell Obama's Senate seat, which as Illinois Gov he is solely responsible for appointing the new Senator. Let me summarize the issue as briefly as I can:

Gov. Blagojevich was being investigated by the Feds for corruption, getting campaign contributions from lots of rich folk, including our old friend Tony Rezko, in exchange for your standard slate of government contracts and other favors. As part of his investigation, Fitzgerald, who is widely thought to be the best prosecutor in the country, tapped Blagojevich's personal and office phones, as well as his office and a conference room at "Friends of Blagojevich", his political organization. The Illinois legislature passed an ethics law to make it tougher for Blagojevich to raise money, starting January 1, 2009, so time was a-wastin'.

As it became clear that Obama was going to win, giving Blagojevich the opportunity to appoint his successor to the Senate. Appointing himself to the seat would benefit him, so he made clear to anyone who would listen that he was open to offers. Bribes he was asking for included:

1. Being appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services, Energy, or an ambassador
2. Getting his wife a well-paying position on a corporate board
3. A high-paying job for himself with a political committee and/or a non-profit group
4. Campaign funds

So yeah, it's illegal to ask people for that stuff in exchange for an official decision.

There are two ways this can come back to sting Obama. First off, there's Rezko's involvement. There was a real estate deal involving Rezko and the Obamas in the past that, while probably not anything that will ever be a big deal, it hurts any time "Obama" and "Rezko" are in the same news story.

The more serious issue is a discrepancy between Obama's statements on this issue and those of David Axelrod, Obama's chief campaign strategist. In an interview with the Chicago Fox affiliate a couple weeks ago, Axelrod said that Obama had "talked to the governor" about who would replace him. Today, Obama said "I had no contact with the governor or his office." If Obama indeed has spoken with Blagojevich in the past month or two, Fitzgerald would have a recording of the conversation. Let's hope Obama's telling the truth. I think he is, actually. It seems unlikely that Obama would actually personally talk to pretty much anyone directly, especially a corrupt governor. So Axelrod just meant that Obama's people talked to Blagojevich and/or his people.

During Obama's comments today about the issue, he said "I had no contact with the governor or his office and so we were not, I was not aware of what was happening." Notice that he stopped himself from saying "we were not aware", correcting to "I was not aware". So clearly his team knew what was going on, but Obama at least has plausible deniability. Depending on how close it gets to the man himself, he could be politically hurt, leaving him less able to pass his agenda. Health insurance reform and funding for green energy, infrastructure and higher education got a little less likely. We'll find out how much less.

No comments: