Chicago political machine


Lost somewhat in the shuffle of Illinois political news Wednesday was former Blagojevich chief of staff John Harris’s guilty plea that included a promise to be a government witness in the federal corruption case against the former governor.

Judging from what the Chicago Tribune reported about the 26-page plea agreement, Rod Blagojevich should be quaking in his boots.

John Harris, who was arrested with the former governor in December, is expected to detail for prosecutors perhaps the most stunning charge in the case: how Blagojevich allegedly used his power to appoint a successor to President Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate to barter to enrich himself.

In exchange for Harris’ testimony, prosecutors agreed to recommend he serve less than 3 years in prison. He pleaded guilty to a single count of wire fraud and is expected to be one of a series of former aides and confidants — fellow chiefs of staff Alonzo “Lon” Monk and John Wyma as well as fundraiser Antoin “Tony” Rezko among them — to testify against Blagojevich.

The plea agreement alleges that the former governor viewed the Senate appointment as a unique opportunity to try to bargain with the new Obama administration, perhaps leading to a Cabinet or ambassador’s post.

But Blagojevich isn’t the only person who should be worried. As I suggested on this blog in early April, and Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass noted in his column today, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley might be quaking in his boots, too. If Harris has knowledge pertaining to any other federal corruption cases, he will be a government witness in those cases, too. And before he was Blagojevich’s chief of staff, Harris was Daley’s chief of staff and served in other high-ranking positions in Daley’s administration. If U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is investigating anything related to the Daley administration, Harris is a go-to guy for inside information.

To drive home my point, read this quote from Harris’s attorney, Terry Ekl:

“I’ll tell you this: When John Harris began to cooperate with the government, he did not pick and choose the subject matters. He’s been questioned about a variety of subjects. He’s been truthful and honest about all of those, and I’m not going to have anything further to say about what he has talked about in terms of other investigations.”

Hopefully Ekl doesn’t need to say anything more in order for fear to be struck into the hearts of corrupt Chicago politicians. However, it is more likely they expect to beat the rap, as has often been the case when the Chicago political machine is involved.

But maybe this time will be different. At least we can hope so.

Second City announced Friday it extended the run of its hit musical spoof “Rod Blagojevich Superstar” through Sunday, June 14, at Navy Pier’s Chicago Shakespeare Theater “due to tremendous demand and irresistible new source material provided daily by the former governor.”

I saw “Rod Blagojevich Superstar” last weekend and loved it. Writer Ed Furman and music lyricist T.J. Shanoff worked in numerous references from throughout the Blagogate saga, including the allegations that Blagojevich tried to sell a U.S. Senate seat and get members of the Chicago Tribune editorial board fired, Blagojevich’s media blitz (including his infamous comparison of himself to Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King and Gandhi), Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s description of Blagojevich as “cuckoo,” and Blagojevich’s desire to be dropped into the heart of the Costa Rican jungle for a reality TV show. There also is a wonderful reference to his hairbrush, dubbed “the football” by the ex-governor, who breaks down during the show and proclaims, “Must brush hair for power!”

The breakdown leads into a gloriously profane song sung by Lori McClain as Patti Blagojevich, who in real life is heard swearing in the background of wiretapped phone conversations between her husband and his co-conspirators. Pottymouth Patti gets a laugh every time she swears, and sometimes she curses in shockingly funny ways. She also is portrayed as the brains behind Rod’s charmingly naive “scrapper,” who gets seduced into the Chicago political machine by his wife and her father, Chicago Alderman Richard Mell.

Of course, no Blagojevich spoof would be complete without somebody playing Roland Burris, who Blagojevich appointed to fill President Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat after being accused of trying to sell it to the highest bidder. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan also are characters in the play, which, as you might expect, pretty much wrote itself as it unfolded in real life.

And it continues to. While “Rod Blagojevich Superstar” lasts only 55 minutes (one of my few complaints about the play), it is followed by a brief intermission and an improv session that fills out the rest of your 90-minute date with the Second City troupe. Beginning May 7, the improv segment will include a game called “Rod Island,” which Second City describes as “portraying a never-before-seen bootleg copy of the pilot for Rod Blagojevich’s new reality television show.” Too bad I missed that.

Here’s the Bread Line bottom line: If you find humor in the ongoing Blagojevich scandal — even if it’s a sad kind of gallows humor — you’ll enjoy “Rod Blagojevich Superstar.” Click here for more details.

This week one of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s chief critics, state Rep. Jack Franks, introduced legislation aimed at preventing corrupt politicians from selling their stories for profit.

Franks filed the bill hours before learning Blagojevich signed a six-figure book deal with Phoenix Books, an independent publisher based in Beverly Hills, California. According to the Associated Press, the publishing house’s previous releases include a memoir by disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, a tell-all by four Hollywood call girls and a book by a German man accused of cannibalism.

If Franks’ bill becomes law, any elected official convicted of wrongdoing would not be able to profit from book or movie deals detailing a crime for which the politician was convicted. Any profits from such deals would have to be turned over to the state. Franks said he patterned the bill after state laws passed in the 1980s to prevent New York serial killer David Berkowitz from making money by selling book or movie rights to his “Son of Sam” murders.

I think the Franks bill is a good idea. (Dare I call it a “(bleeping) golden” proposal?) Unfortunately, Blagojevich can keep any profits from his book unless he is convicted of forthcoming federal charges. His book, tentatively titled The Governor, is expected to hit bookshelves sometime between October and December, but the federal case against Blagojevich isn’t expected to go to trial until next year. Hopefully the remaining Blago books will be in bargain bins by then.

I, for one, will not pay a penny for that book. If the publisher wants to send me a review copy, I’ll be glad to read it and write about it on this site. But I refuse to give any money to a man who played a key role in screwing up my state’s finances — which likely will result in higher state taxes — while pretending to care about people other than himself and his immediate family.

However, I do wish to caution those who might rush to judgment about the contents of Blagojevich’s book. While I’m certain the book will be completely self-serving and contain its fill of half-truths and lies, there surely will be some actual truth in what Blagojevich writes, too. The trecherous part is trying to figure out which parts are true.

Remember when disgraced baseball slugger Jose Canseco published his book Juiced, in which he claimed there was rampant steroid use in baseball? Canseco was derided as bitter and turned into a laughingstock. Then baseball “suddenly” developed a steroid problem, and Canseco was vindicated. He still is considered a bit of a joke, but one that did some good by shining a light on a serious problem.

If Blagojevich is true to his word and accurately writes about the “dark side of politics,” he also could shine light on a serious problem. Even so, I doubt his book would do much to change politics. The Chicago political machine will not come to a grinding halt. But if it exposes any corruption that gets rectified, I suppose Blagojevich’s writing debut will be worth the paper it is printed on — but not 25,000 copies of it.

When former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointed Roland Burris to fill President Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat Dec. 30, I wrote the following after predicting the Land of Lincoln would be stuck with Trailblazer Burris as its junior senator:

If that is the case, Burris surely will be an ineffective senator. Not only will he be scorned by his fellow senators, he will be eaten alive by the media. Burris barely survived today’s news conference, which was more like a circus than a presser. He will be hounded by questions of illegitimacy until he steps away from this mess, is forced out of it, or fulfills the two years left in Obama’s vacated term – whichever comes first.

The scorn of Burris’s fellow senators subsided quickly, but the rest of my comment still holds. Burris’s latest mess involves his sudden recall of multiple fundraising solicitations by people associated with Blagojevich, most notably Robert Blagojevich, the former governor’s brother and head of the Friends of Blagojevich campaign fund. Burris conveniently forgot to mention those conversations during his Jan. 8 testimony before the House impeachment committee.

Burris insists those conversations didn’t result in him contributing any money to Blagojevich or offering to raise funds for him, and I suppose I believe him – for now. The FBI may have a wiretap recording that says otherwise. It also is possible Burris has conveniently forgotten an offer to raise money for Blagojevich, the same way he forgot to mention those conversations to lawmakers.

Burris held a news conference Sunday to try worming his way out of his predicament, but once again the media ate him alive. (Reporters like eating worms.) Burris and his attorney, Tim Wright, sounded foolish as they tried to pass the absent-minded senator’s blame first to his main House committee questioner, state Rep. Jim Durkin, then to the media.

Although everyone but Burris and Wright remember Durkin asking clear questions that should have led to Burris mentioning the campaign contribution conversations, Burris insisted he didn’t get a chance to tell the whole story because Durkin’s further questioning led him astray.

“If they had asked me, and not taken me in a different direction, and followed up, if Durkin hadn’t followed up with another question rather than – I don’t know where we went, but the transcript will show it, we didn’t stay in that area. … Nobody ever came back to the list of names,” Burris said.

Sounds like something out of the Blagojevich impeachment trial play book, doesn’t it? Just as Blagojevich lied when he said he couldn’t question witnesses in his defense, Burris lied when he said he didn’t get an opportunity to elaborate further.

Backed with transcripts in hand, reporters continually questioned Burris about that lie, prompting the senator to lash out at the media: “The inconsistencies are coming from the press!”

Burris claimed the story has been “half-reported,” which, although not true, still gives the media a better batting average than the senator’s quarter-true statements.

As expected, Durkin and House Minority Leader Tom Cross called for an investigation into whether Burris committed perjury. Durkin also called for Burris’s resignation, while Cross questioned the senator’s mental capacity.

“If you have that much of a memory problem, maybe you shouldn’t be in the United States Senate, on a capacity issue,” Cross said.

Six years ago I couldn’t think of any way the Democrats would lose statewide power this soon to an Illinois Republican Party beleaguered by George Ryan’s corruption, lack of solid party leadership and other problems. But Blagojevich and Burris may hand the state’s reins back to the GOP if Republicans can field a decent candidate, a recurring problem for the GOP in recent years. My prediction is Durkin will attempt to ride his newfound wave of attention to either the governor’s mansion or the U.S. Senate.

Even with the power of the Chicago political machine backing them, the Democrats have a lot of repair work to do to avoid a rash of voter backlash in 2010 – especially when Blagojevich probably won’t be tried on political corruption charges until then, keeping that debacle fresh in people’s memories as they enter the voting booths.

After a whole week of silence from Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor resurfaced in the media Wednesday on WLS-AM’s “Don Wade and Roma Show.”

Every time Blagojevich embarks on another media blitz, he brings a new set of talking points that he repeats at each stop. This time he is accusing Springfield lawmakers of being a bunch of drunken adulterers.

“It’s a whole different world down there,” Blagojevich said. “A bunch of them are cheating on their spouses. A lot of them drink in excess. Very few of them know what’s going on. They just take their marching orders from legislative leaders, and then the legislative leaders have to do things for them to keep them happy.”

He went on to say, “People are human and they make mistakes. But cheating on your wife and sleeping with your secretary, that’s the wrong thing to do.”

Blagojevich is right. That is the wrong thing to do. Some other wrong things to do include lying, excessively wasting taxpayer dollars, attempting to sell a U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder, trying to withhold funding for sick children until a hospital executive makes a campaign contribution, and playing the race card at inappropriate times.

Blagojevich also disparaged his state senator, Senate President John Cullerton, for driving “around the neighborhood in a Jaguar.” He said Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan “have been part of an effort to to prevent property tax relief for homeowners.”

The self-proclaimed “voice for the people” summarized his point thusly: “And, again, it’s the average guy in the neighborhood who’s getting screwed as they drive around, you know, working neighborhoods in Jaguars pretending to be on the side of the people.”

Much like when Blagojevich pretended to be on the side of the people as he regularly flew from Chicago to Springfield on a taxpayer-funded, state-owned airplane anytime he needed to do business in the state capital, because he refused to live in the Executive Mansion in Springfield so he could stay near the Chicago political machine that built him. It was the average guy in the state who got screwed as Blagojevich flew overhead, primping his hair and thumbing his nose at the rest of us.

The sad thing is, we’re still getting screwed by Blagojevich, even after he got kicked out of office – and he reminds us every time he returns to the airwaves.

And so it is done. Rod Blagojevich is no longer governor of Illinois.

The Illinois Senate voted 59-0 to remove Blagojevich from office and then voted 59-0 to bar him from ever holding public office in Illinois again. Of course, Blagojevich later proclaimed his innocence again, this time during a press conference outside his Chicago home.

Incidentally, Blagojevich traveled home on a taxpayer-funded, state-owned airplane before he was removed from office. His successor, Pat Quinn, said yesterday Blagojevich would need to find an alternate way home if he was no longer governor.

Blagojevich left the Capitol immediately after finishing his closing statement, which shows how little he really cared about defending himself in the first place. Either that or he just couldn’t face his accusers for longer than what amounted to a 47-minute stump speech for himself.

Regardless, the bottom line is Blagojevich is out of office, so Quinn and the Illinois legislature can get to work tackling other problems. Quinn will probably do an adequate job as governor, but because he isn’t part of the Chicago political machine, serious challenges will be mounted by people within his own party if he seeks election to a full term as governor next year. Attorney General Lisa Madigan surely will head the list of Democratic challengers to the throne. She stands a good chance of beating Quinn, too, thanks to the strong political influence of her father, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a longtime cog in the Chicago political machine.

But when voters begin contemplating that race and others next year and in the years to come, I hope they will keep in mind what freshman Sen. Dan Duffy said today about Blagojevich’s political sins.

“Testimony shows that his abuse of power has been going on for years and that many people in this government and in this chamber had to have known about it,” Duffy said.

Perhaps someday we will learn the names of those who, until recently, looked the other way as Blagojevich abused his gubernatorial powers. I’m sure we will never learn all of their identities, but I hope many of them are revealed in the hundreds of hours of FBI wiretap recordings made for U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s criminal case against Blagojevich.

As for who the next governor of Illinois should be, perhaps, in wake of the impeachment of Democrat Rod Blagojevich and the conviction of his Republican predecessor, George Ryan, on federal corruption charges, it is time for a strong third-party candidate to make a serious bid. Someone with the average taxpayer’s interests at heart – like Quinn was before he sold out to be second-in-command to a crooked Chicago political machine governor.

For a fleeting minute today, I thought the Burris Gambit worked.

Before the smoke clears from the latest political fire started by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, it may turn out the Burris Gambit did work.

Former Illinois Attorney General and Comptroller Roland Burris knew he wasn’t on the short list of potential successors to President-elect Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat. But he still wanted to be a U.S. senator without the hassle of running another statewide election, so Burris seized upon his last, best chance to get the job within days of Blagojevich’s Dec. 9 arrest on political corruption charges. Burris organized a press conference to try convincing people he would be the best choice to replace Obama because he was untainted by the pay-to-play allegations made against the governor.

At that time, I thought the Burris Gambit smacked of just that – a calculated political move made by a veteran member of the Chicago political machine. However, I didn’t think Burris actually had a chance of being named Obama’s successor. After serving as state comptroller from 1979 t0 1991 and Illinois attorney general from 1991 to 1995, Burris had all but disappeared from the political scene other than to occasionally run for office and lose. Over the years, Burris unsuccessfully ran for governor three times and U.S. Senate once. He even tried to do the impossible by attempting to unseat Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1995.

I suppose Burris, 71, wanted to write a better ending to his political story. He also may have thrown his hat into the ring just to get a better government pension. Regardless of his intent, he certainly didn’t want to lose another election.

“What I wanted to be is a senator and not a candidate at this point,” Burris said on MSNBC late this afternoon.

Despite his repeated statements trying to convince us otherwise, Burris is not untainted in this matter, and not only because of the simple fact he was appointed by Blagojevich. Burris has been a Blagojevich ally in the past – Burris was vice-chairman of the governor’s transition team in 2002, and has donated thousands of dollars to Blagojevich’s campaigns – and thus it will not be surprising if Burris’s name turns up on the Blagogate wiretap recordings.

Whether Burris actually gets to be a U.S. senator for the next two years remains to be seen. Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White said he won’t certify Blagojevich’s appointment, but I don’t think that would hold up in court. Harry Reid, Dick Durbin and the rest of the U.S. Senate Democratic Caucus say they won’t seat anyone appointed by Blagojevich, but that may not be legal, either. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the House of Representatives could not refuse to seat Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a New York Democrat accused of misusing travel funds and putting his wife on the payroll. So Illinois may be stuck with Burris as its next U.S. senator.

If that is the case, Burris surely will be an ineffective senator. Not only will he be scorned by his fellow senators, he will be eaten alive by the media. Burris barely survived today’s news conference, which was more like a circus than a presser. He will be hounded by questions of illegitimacy until he steps away from this mess, is forced out of it, or fulfills the two years left in Obama’s vacated term – whichever comes first.

One thing is for sure: Burris brought the intense media scrutiny onto himself by accepting Blagojevich’s appointment, even though the questions of illegitimacy are not because of Burris’s political track record or racial background (as insinuated by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush).

“This is about Roland Burris as a United States senator, not about the governor who makes the appointment,” Blagojevich said during his press conference today.

Wrong again, Blago. This whole mess has everything to do with you.

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