Questions Arise About the Obama/Blagojevich Relationship

Dec 9, 2008 3:37pm

"Obviously like the rest of the people of Illinois I am saddened and sobered by the news that came out of the US attorney’s office today," said President-elect Obama this afternoon in Chicago, speaking of the criminal complaint against Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich for corruption. "But as this is a ongoing investigation involving the governor I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to comment on the issue at this time."

Asked what contact he’d had with the governor’s office about his replacement in the Senate, President-elect Obama today said "I had no contact with the governor or his office and so we were not, I was not aware of what was happening."

But on November 23, 2008, his senior adviser David Axelrod appeared on Fox News Chicago and said something quite different.

While insisting that the President-elect had not expressed a favorite to replace him, and his inclination was to avoid being a "kingmaker," Axelrod said, "I know he’s talked to the governor and there are a whole range of names many of which have surfaced, and I think he has a fondness for a lot of them."

(UPDATE: An Obama Transition Team aide says that Axelrod misspoke on Fox News Chicago.)

(UPDATE #2:  Axelrod this evening issued a statement saying. "I was mistaken when I told an interviewer last month that the President-elect has spoken directly to Governor Blagojevich about the Senate vacancy. They did not then or at any time discuss the subject.")

There are no allegations that President-elect Obama or anyone close to him had anything to do with any of the crimes Gov. Blagojevich is accused of having committed.

In fact, there are indications that Mr. Obama and his team refused to go along with the "pay to play" way Blagojevich is accused of operating, offering only "gratitude" if the governor appointed his friend Valerie Jarrett to take his U.S. Senate seat, much to the governor’s chagrin.

But there remain questions about how Blagojevich knew that Mr. Obama was not willing to give him anything in exchange for the Senate seat — with whom was Blagojevich speaking? Did that person report the governor to the authorities?

And, it should be pointed out, Mr. Obama has a relationship with Mr. Blagojevich, having not only endorsed Blagojevich in 2002 and 2006, but having served as a top adviser to the Illinois governor in his first 2002 run for the state house.

In the Democratic gubernatorial primary that year, then-state sen. Obama endorsed former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris. But after Blagojevich won, Obama came around enthusiastically. At the same time, meanwhile, Axelrod had such serious concerns about whether Blagojevich was ready for governing he refused to work for his one-time client.

According to Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., Mr. Obama’s incoming White House chief of staff, Emanuel, then-state senator Obama, a third Blagojevich aide, and Blagojevich’s campaign co-chair, David Wilhelm, were the top strategists of Blagojevich’s 2002 gubernatorial victory.

Emanuel told the New Yorker earlier this year that he and Obama "participated in a small group that met weekly when Rod was running for governor. We basically laid out the general election, Barack and I and these two."

Wilhelm said that Emanuel had overstated Obama’s role. "There was an advisory council that was inclusive of Rahm and Barack but not limited to them," Wilhelm said, and he disputed the notion that Obama was "an architect or one of the principal strategists."

(An Obama Transition Team aide emails to note that Emanuel later changed his recollection of this story to Rich Miller’s "CAPITOL FAX," saying, "David [Wilhelm] and I have worked together on campaigns for decades. Like always, he’s right and I’m wrong.")

Either way, others now around Obama were less enthusiastic about Blagojevich at the time, namely David Axelrod, Obama’s senior campaign adviser who will soon be a senior adviser at the White House.

Axelrod had worked for Blagojevich in his past races for the House, but he declined to work on his gubernatorial run.

"He had been my client and I had a very good relationship with him, but I didn’t sign on to the governor’s race," Axelrod told the New Yorker. "Obviously he won, but I had concerns about it…I was concerned about whether he was ready for that. Not so much for the race but for governing. I was concerned about some of the folks — I was concerned about how the race was being approached."

On the Chicago TV show "Public Affairs with Jeff Berkowitz" on June 27, 2002, state Sen. Obama said, "Right now, my main focus is to make sure that we elect Rod Blagojevich as Governor, we…"

"You working hard for Rod?" interrupted Berkowitz.

"You betcha," said Obama.

"Hot Rod?" asked the host.

"That’s exactly right," Obama said.

In 2004, then-Gov. Blagojevich enthusiastically endorsed Obama for the Senate seat after he won the nomination, and Obama endorsed Blagojevich for his 2006 re-election race in early 2005.

In the Summer of 2006, then-U.S. Sen. Obama backed Blagojevich even though there were serious questions at the time about Blago’s hiring practices.

At the time, numerous state agencies had had records subpoenaed, with U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald telling authorities he was looking into "very serious allegations of endemic hiring fraud" with a "number of credible witnesses."

In an interview with the Chicago Daily Herald in July 2006, then-Sen. Obama said, "I have not followed closely enough what’s been taking place in these investigations to comment on them. Obviously I’m concerned about reports that hiring practices at the state weren’t, at times, following appropriate procedures. How high up that went, the degree at which the governor was involved, is not something I’m going to speculate on.

"If I received information that made me believe that any Democrat had not been acting in the public interest, I’d be concerned," Obama said.

That said, Mr. Obama said, "If the governor asks me to work on his behalf, I’ll be happy to do it."

Apparently the governor did. At the Illinois State Fair in August 2006, Obama spoke on Blagojevich’s behalf.

"We’ve got a governor in Rod Blagojevich who has delivered consistently on behalf of the people of Illinois," Obama told the crowd.

In January 2007, Blagojevich’s office reserved the Old State Capitol for Mr. Obama’s presidential announcement at Obama’s request.

Blagojevich spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch told reporters that "Representatives for Sen. Obama contacted the governor’s office regarding use of the Old State Capitol. We contacted the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and reserved the Old State Capitol for the Senator on February 10th."

The Old State Capitol is where President Abraham Lincoln delivered his "House Divided" speech in 1858.

Fitzgerald today said that the charges the government was making about Blagojevich "would make Lincoln turn over in his grave."

– jpt

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