The Magazine

The Blago File

Now the question is: When will the caged bird sing?

Oct 29, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 07 • By BARBARA F. HOLLINGSWORTH
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One of my minor triumphs as a cub reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago was snagging the first jailhouse interview with convicted former Democratic governor Otto Kerner. So I eagerly looked forward to reading this book by Chicago Tribune reporters Jeff Coen and John Chase, intended to be the definitive account of the rise and fall of my home state’s latest gubernatorial bad boy: Milorad “Rod” Blagojevich, the mop-haired, loquacious son-in-law of a Chicago Democratic ward boss whose political scheming took him all the way to the summit of Illinois politics—and then down to federal prison in disgrace.

Barack Obama, Jesse Jackson, Rod Blagojevich, 2007

Barack Obama, Jesse Jackson, Rod Blagojevich, 2007

As the authors note in their prologue, “Rod Blagojevich belongs to Chicago.” Indeed, he exemplifies the often banal corruption at the heart of Windy City politics, and readers looking for amusing anecdotes about the former two-term governor will not be disappointed. The book tells how his aides used the word “football”—the same term for the nuclear codes that constantly accompany the president—to refer to the vain Blagojevich’s hairbrush. They also quote the beleaguered governor trying to console his two young daughters, who were upset that their father might be sent away to prison: “Worst case scenario .  .  . you can get another dog and call him ‘Daddy.’ ” 

You can’t make this stuff up.

But more serious readers seeking answers to questions raised about former U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s multiyear, multimillion-dollar investigation will not find them here. Major omissions in Coen and Chase’s otherwise meticulously detailed narrative regarding the Tribune’s own role in tipping off Blagojevich that he was under wiretap surveillance ultimately render their account incomplete.

For example, of the dozens of pay-to-play corruption charges brought against Blagojevich, the sleaziest of them all was the accusation that he tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the newly elected President Barack Obama in 2008 to the highest bidder. The title of the book comes from a quote in which Blagojevich, unaware that he was being wiretapped, said of his power to appoint a new senator: “I’ve got this thing and it’s f—ing golden. And I, I’m just not giving it up for f—ing nothing.”

Blagojevich had been caught on tape saying that agents of Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) had offered “tangible, concrete, tangible stuff” (i.e., a bribe) in return for the Senate appointment, and he planned to meet with Jackson on December 8. But that meeting, and another set for December 5 between Blagojevich’s brother, Robert, and Raghu Nayak, a wealthy friend of Jackson’s who had allegedly promised $1.5 million in “accelerated fund-raising” if J J Jr. got the coveted seat, never happened.

At about 10:30 p. m. on December 4, Chase “was chosen [by the paper’s top editors] to contact the governor’s press team and try to get some kind of comment,” prematurely spilling the beans on Fitzgerald’s ongoing criminal investigation to its main target. Chase’s story, “Feds Taped Blagojevich,” which ran in the Tribune the following day, noted that Blagojevich aide John Wyma had been cooperating with authorities and that the federal probe had expanded to include the Senate seat. Four days later, the 40th governor of Illinois was arrested at his Chicago bungalow before actually consummating the deal.

Coen and Chase readily admit that their newspaper had been secretly cooperating with Fitzgerald’s office for months by not publishing certain information, and “was aware of the possible arrest date.” But such sensitive information could only have come from one source: the government. So why did the Tribune suddenly stop cooperating and tip off Blagojevich that he was being wiretapped days before his planned arrest? Incredulous bloggers, particularly those at Illinoispaytoplay.com, likened it to spending months watching a suspected drug dealer and then arresting him before he actually hands over the contraband and pockets the cash.

There is no question that the Tribune story prematurely derailed Fitzgerald’s probe: “Had there been no Tribune story,” acknowledge Coen and Chase, “the federal government might have run their recording effort longer, hoping to see if they could somehow net an actual deal for the seat with someone in the Jackson camp.”

But at the press conference announcing Blagojevich’s “political corruption crime spree,” Fitzgerald expressed no desire to track down the source of the leak that had just compromised the biggest case of his career. This was a curious reaction by the prosecutor who had previously become a household name by jailing New York Times reporter Judith Miller for 85 days when she refused to reveal sources Fitzgerald already knew about in the Valerie Plame affair.

In a phone interview, Coen and Chase repeatedly declined to comment on the source of the leak, saying it was “the Tribune’s business.” Nor would they say how they had gotten access to “all tapes in which Rod himself was talking”—hundreds of hours from which they quoted extensively, even though the tapes had never been played in court or made part of the public record and were, in fact, under a court seal while they were writing this book.

They referred me to the protective order—entered into court records on April 19, 2009—that specifically forbade Blagojevich’s defense team from disseminating the transcripts of his recorded conversations, but leaving the government free to do so. “We don’t want to go down that road,” they said when I pointed out that they had to be aware of the rampant speculation that Chase’s late-night call to Blagojevich had, in effect, turned the Tribune from objective observer to actor in a melodrama of national interest, because it also involved high-level members of the fledgling administration, such as Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett.

Another glaring omission: Although Coen and Chase provide a lengthy account of how the Syrian-born developer Antoin “Tony” Rezko wormed his way into Blagojevich’s inner circle by raising campaign cash for him, they give short shrift to Rezko’s claim, revealed by prosecutors in a closed-door session with the judge overseeing Blagojevich’s trials, that he had also tried to influence Obama with illegal campaign contributions. Fitzgerald didn’t pursue it—and neither did Coen and Chase.

All of which leaves the reader still wondering why a U.S. attorney with a record of not tolerating leaks would be so sanguine about this one, even going so far as to thank the Tribune and then, presumably, grant it exclusive access to hundreds of hours of wiretap evidence. Was Blagojevich’s arrest—occurring, as it did, before any quid pro quo was finalized—a surgical strike intended to warn Jesse Jackson Jr. and, perhaps, Obama’s top aides that they, too, were under surveillance? Coen and Chase don’t even raise the possibility.

“The birds always sing after the storm,” Blagojevich declared while signing autographs during his second trial, after which he was sentenced to 14 years in prison. In mobbed-up Chicago, a singing bird is a synonym for snitch, and his message seems to be that the chess game is not over, and that the definitive account of Blago’s self-inflicted fall from grace has yet to be written.

Barbara F. Hollingsworth is local opinion editor of the Washington Examiner.