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Friday, December 12, 2008

The Fall of the House of Blago: How a Governor Self-Destructed

By Steven Gray / Chicago

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich leaves his home through a back alley the day after he was arrested on federal corruption charges.
Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich leaves his home through a back alley the day after he was arrested on federal corruption charges.
Mark Carlson / AP

Wednesday was Rod Blagojevich's 52nd birthday, but you can bet it was not a happy one. After having been charged by federal authorities with trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat that President-elect Barack Obama vacated, the Illinois governor spent most of the day hidden from view inside the state office building in downtown Chicago. The few allies he had left have vanished. And anyone who might have been among the unnamed Senate candidates in the detailed charges against Blagojevich have been busy putting distance between the governor and themselves. Among those were Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., who has hired a lawyer to accompany him to a meeting with federal prosecutors on Friday. (See TIME's Top 10 Scandals of 2008.)

But it is Blagojevich who continues to be the target of public outrage. Talk-radio hosts in the state fielded calls from citizens who wondered how the governor could attempt anything so brazen amid what were clearly ongoing federal investigations into some of his activities. "It's as if it didn't register [with Blagojevich]," says Jay Stewart, executive director of the Illinois Better Government Association, in Chicago. "Even by our crass, low standards in Illinois, it's stunning." Most polls had the governor's approval rating in the low two digits, from 16% to about 25%, but a recent survey had Blago (as the Illinois public has grown to call him, unflatteringly) at an incredible subbasement-level 4%.

Six years ago, Blagojevich, the son of a Serbian-born steelworker, seemed to have an almost inspiring résumé. He worked as a dishwasher to pay for college. After graduating from Pepperdine University's law school, he eventually found work as a prosecutor in Cook County, which includes Chicago, frequently handling domestic-abuse cases. He married well; his wife Patti, the daughter of influential Chicago alderman Richard Mell, used her father's political smarts to help Blagojevich win elections — first to Illinois' General Assembly in 1992 then, four years later, to the U. S. House, as the Representative from the Fifth District of Illinois, which includes parts of Chicago's North Side.

Then in 2002, Blagojevich ran for the governorship, casting himself as a populist, tax-cutting antidote to Illinois' long tradition of corrupt politics. Indeed, the previous governor, George Ryan, had been fighting that reputation and in 2003 was charged with and later convicted of corruption. Blagojevich had a striking public image to go with his reformist politics. Short and fit, with a shock of dark brown feathered hair, he wore sharply cut suits that some of his admirers said looked pulled out of GQ. He also had his father-in-law's help with strategy, and he became the first Democrat elected governor of Illinois since the 1970s. He also had a bit of luck. His Republican opponent's last name was also Ryan (though Jim Ryan is not related to the disgraced former governor), which helped tar the GOP candidate with the outgoing governor's problems. Even so, Blagojevich won with a relatively narrow 52% of the vote.

In 2006, Blagojevich won re-election by investing heavily in television advertising that again linked his Republican opponent to George Ryan's sins. But by then, Blagojevich's reputation as a clean-government reformer was already sullied. Even the haircut and GQ suits were looking out of date.

As a governor, he showed some serious political shortcomings. Officials who worked with him say Blagojevich could appear disengaged and never truly expert in any of the policy discussions in which he participated. Jim Duffett, executive director of Illinois' Campaign for Better Health Care, contends that Blagojevich's attempts at health-care reform failed largely because of his prickly, grandstanding personality, which alienated lawmakers and would-be allies. If anything got passed, says Duffett, legislators "knew the governor would get credit for it." There was also the misguided audacity of his political tactics. He tried to fund his health-care plan, for example, in a budget that included one of the largest proposed tax increases in Illinois history. He lost that battle in humiliating fashion, garnering not a single vote in the state house of representatives. His attempts to privatize Illinois' downtown office property failed miserably as well.

Blagojevich also alienated his powerful father-in-law. Mell had been given a lot of the credit for helping Blagojevich win the governor's office, so much so that a local publication called Mell the "governor-in-law." But petty arguments mushroomed into a major falling out, including Blagojevich's shutting down a landfill owned by a Mell relative who allegedly boasted he had clout with the governor. Blagojevich then publicly belittled his father-in-law, saying "This is the kind of thing that I think, frankly, separates the men from the boys in leadership. Do you have the testicular virility to make a decision like that, knowing what's coming your way? I say I do."

According to news reports, Blagojevich said of Mell, "There's a method of operation by people like him, and they've been doing politics for years, and they like to leverage and probe and threaten and bluster and bully until they get their way." Political observers say there was a brief attempt at reconciliation between the two men after the death of Mell's wife. But the feud resumed. As the scandal broke this week, Mell barely mentioned his son-in-law as he publicly comforted and defended his daughter.

But the governor's feuds went beyond family. He fought with almost everyone, like the mayor of Chicago (who has called him "cuckoo"), the state's attorney general, the speaker of the Illinois house — all fellow Democrats. For months, Republicans have been talking about impeaching Blagojevich. He has earned the opprobrium of preachers by snubbing a meeting with them, apparently because of their political links with another of his enemies, the Rev. James Meeks, a state senator with ambitions for the governorship. In a February 2008 article in Chicago magazine, reporter David Bernstein wrote, "Nearly everyone I spoke to agrees that Blagojevich is facing a career-threatening political crisis."

At the time, the scandal that appeared most likely to bring him down involved one of his fundraisers, Antoin (Tony) Rezko, who faced charges of trying to extort money from companies dealing with the Illinois state government under Blagojevich. It was a case that threatened to pull in President-elect Obama as well, though Blagojevich, who denied any involvement in Rezko's schemes, appeared to be in more immediate peril. In the end, Rezko was convicted on federal fraud and bribery charges without direct fallout for Blagojevich. Yet the governor faced several other probes, according to Chicago, involving hefty contributions to his wife from political fundraisers and money given even to his 7-year old daughter.

Now the scandal that appears likely to end his career has come. Arriving at court on Tuesday, Blagojevich entered from a side door, wearing a Nike blue and black running suit and keeping his head low after a quick sweeping look at the crowded gallery. His appearance was rather haggard, his normally brushed bangs a bit unkempt — a striking contrast with his co-defendant, chief of staff John Harris, 46, who was dressed tidily in a suit and tie.

After Tuesday's court proceedings, Blagojevich returned to his modest brown house on Chicago's North Side. For much of his tenure as governor, he has spent more time in Chicago than in Springfield, the state capital. Blagojevich has thus far refused to resign, and he still holds the power to fill Obama's vacant U.S. Senate seat. But it's doubtful any credible candidate would accept a nomination that came from his hand. To try to circumvent the scandal, there is some talk of the lieutenant governor, Pat Quinn, appointing Obama's successor.

Despite the calls for his resignation — from Obama, among others — and a move in the state legislature to start impeachment proceedings, observers don't expect a quick resolution to the scandal. "These calls for Blagojevich to resign, they're very sensible, but you can't force someone to do so," says Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who now heads the political-science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Impeachment hearings would take a long time — months — and the call for a special election needs his signature, which the legislature would then have to override his veto. It's not a quick process." And given his pugnacious history, the governor could fight until the bitter end. With reporting by Eric Ferkenhoff / Chicago

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Bush Condemns Free National Wi-Fi

posted by Chris Dannen

In another nod to his alleged "free-market" principles, President Bush has expressed disapproval of the free nationwide Wi-Fi proposal being considered by the FCC and Congress.

It's an inauspicious time to decry helpful, even vital democratic initiatives in favor of ideology -- after all, many of our most outspoken critics of federal mandate and regulation have ended up looking dogmatic, shortsighted or downright ignorant of late.

But that hasn't stopped the Bush team from making its anti-populist agenda known. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez issued an open letter to the FCC this week, stating the administration's argument against legislation that could lead to nationwide no-fee wireless Internet. The administration hopes to influence FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to overturn the proposal during the FCC's next scheduled meeting on December 18th.

The legislation, which is before Congress now, would require whoever buys the chunk of wireless spectrum being auctioned next year to set aside a quarter for no-fee service to rural areas that don't have broadband access.

The spectrum being auctioned, called the Advanced Wireless Services (or AWS-3) spectrum, is being vacated by television broadcasters, who must switch to wired digital broadcasting in January by federal mandate. That leaves a new swath of "white space" free to be leased by the highest bidder.

In his letter, the Secretary argues that "This mandate would likely lead to congested and inefficiently used broadband," though he doesn't say specifically how that would happen. Since the free broadband would only operate at downstream speeds of around 700Kbps -- most consumer services are twice that speed at about 1.5Mbps -- it's hard to imagine any small business or power-user abandoning their paid service for a pokey, if free, connection. Upstream speeds would be much slower than 700k, making massive uploads prohibitively slow, and stemming most peer-to-peer abuse.

Because the free service would be administered by whichever private company won the auction for the AWS-3 white space, that company could use the same tools it uses on private service -- caps, filtering, monitoring -- to enforce good usage habits on the public spectrum.

"The history of FCC spectrum auctions has shown that the potential for problems increases in instances where licensing is overly prescriptive or designed around unproven business models," Gutierrez continues. Huh? No one is telling the winning company what to do with the other 75% of the white space, which could be -- and will be -- a wildly profitable and flexible spectrum of frequencies. There's no telling what kinds of fantastic products and services will come out of the new space, and the government isn't trying to dictate what will.

It used to be that public resources like land and radio spectrum were leased to private companies by the government so that the "people" could profit from their use. But in 2008, few of us feel as if government revenue is really going to the "people" anymore. This free Wi-Fi legislation would do something that no government lease has done in a while -- it would actually return some of the benefit from a public asset to American citizens.

At certain points in his letter, Secretary Gutierrez betrays his ignorance of the alternatives to free wireless broadband. He says "... a government-mandated free nationwide network is not the most effective or efficient way to assist underserved areas," but exactly the opposite is true. There's a reason that no private company has opened up service to rural residents in some areas of the country: the potential revenue from those customers doesn't offset the cost of the infrastructure they'd need to build.

Sure, the company that wins the white space lease could broadcast service to those rural areas wirelessly, and that would cut down on the overhead sufficiently to offer a reasonable rate. But we're not just talking about giving Internet to a bunch of free-loaders; we're talking about providing it free for schools, hospitals, non-profits, the elderly, children, and the poor. If we have an opportunity to enfranchise these organizations and individuals for negligible cost, why wouldn't we? Don't we all benefit from better education for kids, low-cost and efficient online medical records, and fast, cheap online communications?

As Barack Obama maligned last week, the United States is 15th world-wide in broadband adoption. He hasn't expressly endorsed the proposal for free nationwide Wi-Fi, but his most likely candidate for commerce secretary, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, advocated free rural broadband when he himself was a presidential contender.

Hopefully FCC Chairman Martin won't renege on the proposal before Congress. Free markets are excellent mechanisms for the broader economy, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't carve out humanitarian niches where they are needed for the upward march of society. After all, what good is any market if there are fewer of us with the access and education to participate in it?

Illinois First Lady Faces Scrutiny

By PAM BELLUCK

Brian Kersey/Associated Press

Patricia Blagojevich, the wife of Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois, is the daughter of a longtime Chicago alderman and the sister of a recently elected state representative.

In the six years since she became first lady of Illinois, Patricia Blagojevich, now 43, has not played a highly public role in her husband’s administration.

“She has kept a very low profile as first lady,” said Paul Green, a political science professor at Roosevelt University. “She literally could walk down Michigan Avenue and if she didn’t have security, 9 out of 10 people would not know who she was.”

So the extent of her involvement in the brash telephone conversations that resulted in charges of corruption against her husband, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, on Tuesday came as a surprise to many.

In the 76-page federal complaint, Ms. Blagojevich appears to be an influential and demanding partner to her husband’s schemes to trade the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama for money-making or politically aggrandizing opportunities.

The complaint also shows her participating in a phone call in which the governor discusses trading his influence over the Senate seat appointment to earn money and find Ms. Blagojevich seats on paid corporate boards.

And, in a blast of vulgar language, Ms. Blagojevich eggs on her husband when he reportedly threatens to prevent the Tribune Company from selling the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field unless The Chicago Tribune fired editorial writers who had called for the governor’s impeachment. Ms. Blagojevich is quoted in the complaint as saying that the state should “hold up that [expletive] Cubs [expletive] ... [expletive] them.”

Federal officials have declined to discuss the role of Ms. Blagojevich in the case. She has not been charged in the case. But officials have suggested that she and others involved in the taped phone calls would be looked at as part of the continuing investigation.

Ms. Blagojevich has a deep-rooted political pedigree as the daughter of Richard Mell, the longtime Chicago alderman and a leader in Cook County Democratic politics, who is considered to have been instrumental in getting Mr. Blagojevich in politics.

“Rod’s marriage to her is really what begins his political career,” said John P. Pelissero, a political science professor at Loyola University. “It was really through connections with his father-in-law’s influence that he got elected.”

The Web site for the governor’s office says that in addition to raising the couple’s two daughters, Ms. Blagojevich occupies herself with typical first lady issues: raising awareness on children’s health, food allergies and literacy, and starting the State Beautification Initiative, which planted native wildflowers along state roads.

But in recent years, Ms. Blagojevich, who has a bachelor’s degree in economics and a real estate broker’s license, has attracted attention through the dealings of her home-based real estate company. Her clients have included people who were awarded state contracts or made political contributions to the governor.

The Chicago Tribune, in an analysis, reported that her firm, River Realty, had earned more than $700,000 in commissions since her husband began raising money in 2000 for his first run for governor. The Tribune reported that more than three-quarters of those commissions came from “clients with connections,” not including commissions she earned from Antoin Rezko, a developer and fund-raiser for the Blagojevich campaign, who was convicted of fraud and bribery this summer.

According to news reports over the last year, federal law enforcement officials have been investigating Ms. Blagojevich’s real estate dealings. Officials in the federal prosecutor’s office would not comment Tuesday on whether Ms. Blagojevich was under investigation for the real estate dealings or anything else.

In September, she became development director for the Chicago Christian Industrial League, which helps poor and homeless families. A spokeswoman, Jenny Brandhorst, said Ms. Blagojevich has “a good knowledge of, obviously, Chicago and the development community. She’s done a great job since she’s been here.”

Chicago newspapers have reported that tax records show that in 2007, the Blagojevich family’s income dropped 17 percent, to $214,580 in combined wages. (He earns $177,412 as governor.) In the transcript of the charges against the governor, finding avenues for his family to get more money is a constant theme.

If Mr. Blagojevich owes some electoral success to his father-in-law, their relationship frayed over Mr. Blagojevich’s 2005 decision to close a landfill owned by a cousin of Mr. Mell’s wife, saying that it had environmental problems. Mr. Mell accused the governor of carrying out a vendetta against him and his relatives. Mr. Blagojevich said he had the male “virility” to stick with his decision.

Ms. Blagojevich’s sister, Deborah Mell, a gay rights activist, was elected a state representative in Illinois last month. She first indicated that she would run for Representative Rahm Emanuel’s Congressional seat when he becomes Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, but decided against it.

Ms. Mell’s spokeswoman, Leah Cunningham Pouw, said her own impression of Ms. Blagojevich was that “she is extremely dedicated to her kids,” adding: “I’ve seen her laughing and playing with them. She’s funny; she’s light. When you go in their house, there’s pictures of their drawings posted on the stairwell.”

Asked if she was surprised by the words attributed to Ms. Blagojevich in the transcript, Ms. Pouw said, “Well, Rich Mell is sort of known for his colorful language.”

Ms. Blagojevich told Chicago Parent magazine last month that she did not want her daughters, Amy, 12, and Annie, 5, to go into politics.

“It’s a rough-and-tumble life. Politics in Chicago is like a blood sport,” she said, adding that in her husband’s case, “I’m looking forward to the day he’s not in politics.”

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