Blagojevich's Past Paved With Allegations

Case sheds light on web of people caught up in governor's alleged schemes.

December 10, 2008, 9:45 PM

Dec. 11, 2008— -- Greed, corruption, ambition and a stunning fall from power -- the federal complaint against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich reads like a Shakespearean tragedy.

Beyond the recent allegations of fraud and influence peddling against Blagojevich, those who know and have worked with the governor say the man who rose from the city's gritty Northwest Side, married into a well-connected political clan and feuded with everyone from family members to the speaker of the state House is a tale that could only happen in Chicago.

The case, the most recent of several corruption investigations involving the governor, sheds light not only on one allegedly corrupt individual, or on a state with a decades-old reputation for corruption, but also on a political system composed of competing clans, in which the governor exploited personal relationships at the expense of the public's trust.

From the federal complaint, the picture that emerges is of a conniving, delusional and combative man. Blagojevich's wife, Patricia, mentioned repeatedly in the complaint but not charged with a crime, has been compared to Lady Macbeth, for the way she reportedly attacked her husband's enemies and supported his schemes.

Blagojevich's lawyer has said that he is innocent and the governor went to work Wednesday, a representative saying, "The day-to-day operation doesn't change nor is it affected."

Arrested Tuesday and charged with attempting to sell the open Senate seat vacated by President-elect Obama, Blagojevich entered office in 2002 on a promise of ending "business as usual" in Illinois after the scandal-racked tenure of Gov. George Ryan.

But from almost the beginning, allegations of corruption dogged the new governor.

Milorad "Rod" Blagojevich was born on the Northwest Side of Chicago in 1956, the son of a Yugoslavian immigrant steelworker. The young Blagojevich was an admittedly mediocre student, who delivered pizzas and shined shoes to help the family make ends meet.

Addressing a group of high school students in 2006, Blagojevich called the D he received in high school algebra "a classic case of grade inflation."

A high school basketball player and Elvis Presley fan, Blagojevich trained for a time as a teenager to be a Golden Gloves boxer.

"He wasn't a very good boxer, but he liked to fight," said Pat LaCassa, a boxing trainer who coached Blagojevich in the 1970s.

"He was a good kid. He had only had two Golden Gloves fights. He won one and lost one. I remember that he didn't like to lose," he said. "He's a different guy now."

A penchant for fighting and a desire to win, colleagues say, were characteristics that he showed from his early days as a politician in the Illinois House of Representatives, through his time as a U.S. congressman and into his tenure as governor.

"He likes to fight," said Brandon Phelps, a state representative from southern Illinois. "There's an arrogance about him, no doubt. I always got the sense that he thought, 'by golly, I'm the governor, you should do as I say.'"

Phelps said the governor has a reputation for being hot tempered and after Blagojevich failed to come through on his promises, the state representative found him to be "untrustworthy."

"There were things we had talked about during a vote or something like that, that he wanted," Phelps said. "There were projects that I was promised that I never got. He didn't come through on a lot of stuff and that's when I realized this guy was just untrustworthy."

In each stage of Blagojevich's life, relationships forged with friends, family and colleagues would later be tinged with the taint of scandal and corruption.

It was in the gym as a young man that Blagojevich sparred with friend Michael Ascaridis. Three decades later, in 2005 the FBI launched an investigation into a $1,500 check written by Ascaridis' wife, Beverly.

Beverly Ascaridis told investigators in 2005 she believed she'd received her state job in exchange for the money. The governor initially said the check was a gift for one of his two daughters and then claimed it was a gift for the other.

During his time in Congress, Blagojevich formed a relationship with civil rights activist Jesse Jackson when the two men traveled to Belgrade together to negotiate the release of U.S. prisoners of war.

'Senate Candidate No. 5'

On Wednesday it was revealed that Jackson's son Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. is the person referred to in the affidavit as "Senate Candidate No. 5," whose representatives allegedly offered to buy Obama's seat.

According to the FBI affidavit, emissaries from "Senate Candidate No. 5" allegedly offered up to $1 million for the seat.

Jackson Jr.'s attorney James Montgomery confirmed that the Chicago congressman is "Senate Candidate No. 5," the anonymous contender named in the complaint. However, James said, "Jackson has never authorized anyone to seek the governor's support in return of money, fundraising or other things of value."

Tuesday's arrest of Blagojevich also focused attention on his wife, Patricia. Though the first lady has not been accused of any wrongdoing, an image of her emerges through quotes in the affidavit as an enabler of her husband's alleged corruption.

The first lady was, however, already under investigation for her real estate dealings with another Blagojevich friend, convicted slumlord Tony Rezko.

In 2005, according to The Associated Press, she received nearly $50,000 from a real estate deal three years earlier involving Rezko. In June, Rezko was convicted of using clout with the Blagojevich administration to help launch a multimillion-dollar kickback scheme.

According to the complaint against the governor, Patricia Blagojevich, 43, is overheard in the background of a taped phone conversation cursing and suggesting that some Chicago Tribune editors should be fired in exchange for state assistance with selling Wrigley Field. The the home of the Cubs baseball team was owned by the paper's parent company.

"Hold up that [expletive] Cubs [expletive]," she says as her husband is talking on the telephone. "[Expletive] them."

She is also heard, according to the complaint, suggesting that a deal to sell Obama's Senate seat should include a seat on a corporate board for her.

First Lady Abuses of Power?

The mother of two children, Amy, 12, and Annie, 5, whose business dealings have raised questions about abuses of her power as first lady, is at the center of the governor's most public falling out.

As a young lawyer in the late 1980s, Blagojevich met Patricia Mell at a fundraiser for her father, Chicago Alderman Richard Mell. Two years after the couple married in 1990, Mell used his connection to help get his son-in-law elected first to the state House, then the U.S. House and to governor in 2002.

"Blagojevich's relationship with Mell is nuclear," said Rich Miller, who writes a blog about Illinois politics called Capital Fax. "Mell made him. He got him elected to every office he's ever held."

A rift in the family formed around 2005, seemingly stemming from the governor's closing a landfill run by a distant relative of Mell's wife.

Mell would not comment on the charges against the governor, saying only, "My only concern is my daughter and grandchildren."

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