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Pay to Play: How Rod Blagojevich Turned Political Corruption Into a National Sideshow Hardcover – April 20, 2009
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"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Learn more
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Chicago PBS newswoman Brackett details the latest episode in Illinois politics' long-running soap opera, the fascinating story of smooth-talking, big-haired governor Rod Blagojevich, arrested last December, who stuck a price tag on almost everything that crossed his desk. After law school and an introduction to politics by his less-than-ethical father-in-law, powerful Chicago alderman Dick Mell, "Blago" became a loud but ineffective member of the Illinois Senate, "rarely showing up for committee meetings," and often hard to find for important votes. As governor, he empowered infamously corrupt Chicago characters to oversee his kickback operations, but the red-hot core of the pay-to-play scandal was his attempt to sell President Obama's vacated U.S. senate seat. The tale continued as, free on bond, Blago executed a national media tour to establish his virtue and victim-hood. Blago's ensuing impeachment, an Illinois first, is buttressed by a number of sideshows, including a suburban hospital sting, a government push to fire critical Chicago Tribune editors, and Blago's final act of power, appointing politico Raymond Burris to the infamous Senate seat. This passenger-seat view of Blago's wild ride is not only remarkably thorough (especially given Brackett's quick turnaround), but a surefire political page-turner. B&w photos.
A surefire political page-turner. (Publishers Weekly, Starred Review)
A lively account of the tragi-comedy that culminated in the governor's impeachment. (Baltimore Sun)
New book offers clues to what makes Blagojevich tick. (Chicago Sun-Times)
Rod Blagojevich biography serves up meaty morsels. (Chicago Tribune)
A fascinating read. (The State Journal-Register, (Springfield, Il))
What's most fascinating is the discovery that people were weirded out by him long before he started quoting Tennyson and jogging around Ravenswood Manor with camera crews in tow. His hair, his Elvis obsession, his near-bipolar personality... But the former guv should thank Brackett for sketching such a humane portrait. (Time Out Chicago)
Rod Blagojevich's feet are about to get held to the fire (again) in [Pay to Play: How Rod Blagojevich Turned Political Corruption into a National Sideshow by Elizabeth Brackett] that paints the ousted Illinois governor as an ego-driven liar who kept his staff in the dark, cursed the press and was so inconsiderate, he showed up late to a state funeral. (New York Post)
Details a strange, dizzy fall. (Tulsa World)
Pays particular attention to the shocking traditions of corruption in Illinois politics that served as a model for Blagojevich. (Sun-Sentinel, (Florida))
It appears Chicago journalist Elizabeth Brackett is poised to beat Rod Blagojevich in the race to publish a tell-all account of the embattled ex-governor's fall from grace. (The Review of Higher Education)
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Blagojevich is seen as someone who enjoyed the political game yet did not like holding office. He took a populist approach to politics where he reached out to voters. Yet he failed to make connections with other office holders that might have helped him advance a governing agenda. Thus he had few political allies when his troubles developed. The State Senate impeached him by 59 to 0.
There were allegations that Gubernatorial appointments improperly went to campaign contributors. The Governor's father in law was among those making the charges. The FBI wiretapped Blagojevich and overheard him declaring he wanted something in return for his U.S. Senate appointment. He was also recorded stating he wanted campaign contributions in return for state-awarded contracts and employment, which is known as "pay to play".
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzpatrick led an investigation into public corruption. Robert Grant of the FBI declared "if Illinois isn't the most corrupt state in the United States, it's certainly one hell of a competitor." Illinois politics has historic roots in corruption. The previous Governor George Ryan was convicted of corruption. It was surprising to the author that the new Governor similarly acted in a corrupt manner, especially as numerous local officials were also convicted for improperly making political hires, and it was thought that should send a warning to others.
A single information claimed Blagojevich had been a bookie while also serving as a state's attorney. Blagojevich and the local bookie's street tax collector both denied this. That statute of limitations had passed and the matter was not pursued.
Blagojevich worked in office of his father in law, Alderman Richard Mell. The U.S. Attorney's office investigated whether employees such as Blagojevich were ghost employees. No charges resulted. Ethics charges were brought against Blagojevich for allegedly representing personal legal clients before the city government for which he worked. The Rules Committee, chaired by Alderman Mell, dismissed the charges.
Blagojevich was elected to the state legislature. He seemed disinterested in the work of a legislator as he often had to be requested to appear for critical votes and he seldom attended committee meetings. He was elected to Congress where he was little involved in the legislative process sponsoring just one bill that became law.
Blagojevich ran for Governor. Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, brother of Chicago Mayor Dick Daley, was a leading possible candidate. Dick Mell circulated an allegation that Daley had a conflict of interest difficulty. Daley did not run. Blagojevich ran as a reformer and was elected.
Blagojevich had Christopher Kelly, who owned a construction company that conducted business with the state, as a fundraiser. He raised large contributions from enterprises that also did business with the state. The word was spread that "pay to play", a process where contracts would be awarded to campaign contributors, would continue in Illinois. The FBI was investigating illegal contract deals.
Governor Blagojevich criticized House Speaker Mike Madigan for allocating $1.6 million for a private livestock exhibition. Blagojevich and Madigan did not get along from then on. Madigan was expert in the details of the legislative process while Blagojevich remained disinterested. The state budget faced a $5 billion deficit that led to much feuding between the Governor's office and the legislature.
Blagejovich seldom went to his office as Governor. He declined to move into the Governor's mansion. He left most of the operational control to aides.
Blagojevich severed his ties with his father in law. Some advisors thought the association with an old time politician could harm his future career. Blagojevich has state environmental regulators close a landfill that Mell worked for as a consultant. A further investigation found the landfill was operating properly and it was reopened.
Mell turned on Blagojevich and accused his administration of requesting $50,000 contributions in return for commission appointments. While Mell took back the allegations, they drew the attention of the U.S. Attorney and the state Attorney General.
The FBI tapes indicate Blagojevich was seeing what he could receive in return for nominating different people to a vacant U.S. Senate seat. It was discussed he could receive a position after serving as Governor paying $250,0000 if he nominated Valerie Jarrett. He would then work with Jarrett and this organization on health care issues. A key issue of his as Governor. Jarrett removed herself from consideration. Blagojevich wanted to know if U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. would raise a million dollars for Blagojevich's political funds. The FBI arrested Blagojevich at this point.
The FBI tapes also indicate a Blagojevich aide and Blagojevich's brother asked for a $50,000 donation to the Blagojevich campaign from a children's hospital executive in return for $8 million in state funds to be given to physicians. Other tapes indicated alleged shakedowns of campaign contributions from horseracing executives in return for almost $30 million in return for campaign contributors.
Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office.
When Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney, announced the charges he stated that Lincoln would roll over in his grave. Not so. Lincoln's reaction would have been: "So what else is new?" Corruption in Illinois is as old as the state. The book begins with a few pages of corruption history. Three of the last seven Illinois governors have gone to prison and Blago is well on his way. But a full history of Illinois corruption would be the length of an encyclopedia.
Those of us who are residents of Illinois, particularly in Crook County, will already be familiar with the dismal story the book recapitulates from local news accounts. But readers outside of Illinois who have heard only parts of the story will find the book a readable and reasonably complete recounting of this one man's corruption. But there was new information, even for this local. I was particularly unaware of and amazed by the deep involvement of Tony Rezko in the various corruption schemes. Rezko was not just a peripheral player, but was deeply involved in numerous schemes. The book carefully recounts the sickening details, most of which were not explicitly reported by the media due to time/space constraints necessitated to ensure coverage of pressing show business news. As another reviewer has pointed out, the book just skims over the real estate deals between Rezko and Obama. It has already been dismissed and discarded as news by the media, but still doesn't pass the Chicago smell test.
There are additional lapses in the book. The book omits the name of the truck driver who bribed his way to a Commercial Drivers License and caused the 1994 accident that killed the six children of Scott and Janet Willis in a fiery crash. (Page 29) That person was Ricardo Guzman whose name should not be forgotten and be remembered in infamy. Guzman could not even understand English.
Further, previous Republican Governor George Ryan, under whose administration as Secretary of State the licenses for bribes system flourished, was indicted, convicted and currently serving his sentence in federal prison. However, the book does not bother to mention that a $20 million legal defense was "donated" free by the firm of Winston & Strawn which is run by cronies former Governor James Thomson and former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb, assisted by 19 or so additional lawyers. Just Illinois politicians taking care of their own. Ryan was still convicted by a unanimous jury verdict.
The book also fails to tell the full story of conversations between Roland Burris, whom Blago appointed to Obama's senate seat, and Robert Blagojevich. (Page 235) It specifically fails to mention that Burris told Robert that while he couldn't personally write a check that he would see if his law firm could donate. That is on tape.
On a lighter note, the book totally understates the future grave-site of soon-to-be former Senator Burris at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. (page 198) Known locally as "Burris-Henge" the book merely describes the edifice as a "large mausoleum" with "three large stone panels under two stately columns" headed with the words "Trail Blazer." In fact, above "Trail Blazer" on the main panel is a large engraving of the Illinois State Seal followed by an extended resume. The side panels recount his "Accomplishments." The massive structure is fronted by two ground-level crypts and topped off by an overhead granite roof supported by the panels in back and two large columns in front with a bench in back to sit and reflect on the deeds of this "Trail Blazer." Google on it to find the photos which must been seen to really appreciate its splendor. The book diagnoses Blago with narcissistic personality disorder (pages 226-227), but that must be catching with politicians.
As other reviewers have mentioned, this book is necessarily incomplete. It recounts events and information that have been released to the public to-date (ca March 2009) and should only be viewed as the first installment in a much more extended and complex saga. Undoubtedly much more will come out in Blago's trial starting sometime between April and July 2010 as Fitzgerald released only enough small bits of crime to further an impeachment action. I do not at all consider the release of this book as premature. Its facts are well-established, including Blago's antics, so it is not at all somehow unfair to him. The public needs to be informed sooner, rather than later.
Overall, a fast and fascinating read and insight into Illinois politics and some of the characters. But stay tuned ... much more to come in the sequel.
ps: I voted for Topinka. So don't blame me!