Was Blago Conduct Illegal?

Dec 16, 2008 11:11am

ABC News’ Rick Klein Reports: It sure looks bad, and smells bad, and — given the salty language — it all sounds really, really bad. But is what Gov. Rod Blagojevich is alleged to have done actually illegal? That’s the intriguing question being raised in some legal circles, one week into one of the biggest political corruption scandals in recent memory. Bribery is illegal. Taking something of value for personal benefit, in exchange for an official action, is illegal. But political horse-trading is not illegal — even if it’s done clumsily, with lots of foul language and other things you wouldn’t want your mother to hear you say on tape. Just about every day, politicians give jobs to political contributors, and cast votes based on guidance and requests from those they owe their livelihoods, at least in part. Our entire political system is based on a system of legalized bribery, where candidates are expected to raise money from those who want to influence governance. David Johnston gets to the heart of the debate in Tuesday’s New York Times: “Ever since the country’s founding, prosecutors, defense lawyers and juries have been trying to define the difference between criminality and political deal-making. They have never established a clear-cut line between the offensive and the illegal, and the hours of wiretapped conversations involving Mr. Blagojevich, filled with crass, profane talk about benefiting from the Senate vacancy, may fall into a legal gray area.” Robert Bennett, a prominent Washington lawyer, nails it with this quote: “This town is full of people who call themselves ambassadors, and all they did was pay $200,000 or $300,000 to the Republican or Democratic Party.” The case may hinge on whether there was a quid pro quo. “There’s horse-trading that’s accepted practice," Patrick Collins, a former federal prosecutor who successfully prosecuted former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, told ABC’s Scott Michels. “Perhaps one line is whether there is a personal benefit attached to the demand on both sides. What makes it potentially corrupt is, appoint me and I’ll get you some cash in return.” U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s legal case against Blagojevich may be harmed because he acted as quickly as he did — before there was a quo for alleged quids. He swooped in with a criminal complaint before Blagojevich, D-Ill., awarded the plum that’s he’s alleged to have put up for sale. To some observers, that suggests that Fitzgerald’s case against Blagojevich is less than airtight — at least so far. That’s one possible reason that Fitzgerald has asked President-elect Barack Obama’s team to hold off on releasing details of contacts Obama advisers had with Blagojevich and his top aides. Writes conservative commentator Pat Buchanan: “Why, if Fitzgerald was listening to the wiretaps and laying his trap for the governor and corrupt politicians interested in buying a U.S. Senate seat, did he abort the operation with his 6 a.m. arrests of Blagojevich and his chief of staff? Why spring the trap when the mouse is just outside, mulling over whether to go for the cheese?” Buchanan continues: “Why not let the plot unfold? Why not let the corrupt bidder for a Senate seat make a solid offer and bring in his or her down payment? Why not wait for the felony to be committed instead of acting while it was still being considered and discussed?” These questions could provide a piece of insight into why Blagojevich hasn’t resigned, despite the mounting pressure for him to leave office. The governor’s new lawyer, Ed Genson, said Monday that his client won’t step aside, and is ready to fight. “I think that this is another one of those cases where the press has just taken control and the media has taken control and I think the case is not what it seems and I think that when it comes to pass, you’ll see it’s not what it seems and you’ll find that he’s not guilty,” Genson said, per ABC’s Matt Jaffe.

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