Fitzgerald: "A political corruption crime spree"

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald lays out the case against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in a Chicago news conference.

Published December 9, 2008 5:41PM (EST)

Rod Blagojevich woke up on Tuesday to the sound of his phone ringing, the head of the Chicago FBI office on the other end. "I woke him up," Special Agent in Charge Rob Grant told reporters in a press conference this afternoon. "So his first response was, was this a joke?"

Grant and U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald laid out some specifics of their case against the Illinois governor a few hours after arresting him suddenly this morning. The investigation had been going on for some time, but the denouement came suddenly today. The reason they acted so quickly?

"Governor Blagojevich has been arrested in the middle of what we can only describe as a political corruption crime spree," Fitzgerald said. "We acted to stop that crime spree."

Fitzgerald is a pretty blunt guy, but even by his standards, the news conference was harsh. "The conduct we have before us is appalling," the prosecutor said. "There's politics and there's crime, and sometimes when people get in trouble is when they start to blur those lines." He spelled out exactly why he was so disgusted by the allegations:

This required unusual measures and there are a lot of things going on that were imminent. There's a bill sitting on a desk that we think a person who was supporting that bill has been squeezed to give $100,000. And to let that bill be signed, to me, would be very, very troubling. There's a hospital -- a children's memorial hospital -- believing that it's getting $8 million, but its CEO has not coughed up a campaign contribution, and the thought that that money may get pulled back from a children's memorial hospital is something that you cannot abide. There is an editor that they'd like fired from the Tribune, and I laid awake at night, worried whether I'd read in the paper in the morning that when there were lay-offs, that we'd find out that that person was laid off.

The FBI's Grant was just as damning: "If [Illinois] isn't the most corrupt state in the United States, it's certainly one hell of a competitor."

At times, Fitzgerald -- who first came to national attention as the special prosecutor investigating Scooter Libby -- was entertainingly careful with his words. "Privately the governor said, 'I could have made a larger announcement but wanted to see how they would perform by the end of the year. If they don't perform, bleep 'em,'" Fitzgerald said. "That's a quote. And the word 'bleep' was not the word he used." A little later, he was careful, again, to avoid rough language: "In the governor's words, quote, 'Fire all those bleeping people. Get them the bleep out of there. And get us some editorial support,' close quote," he said. "And the bleeps are not really bleeps."

He was also careful to stick to the facts of the case. Asked what advice he'd give to anyone who Blagojevich -- who is still governor, and therefore still theoretically empowered to name a new senator for Illinois -- appointed to the office, he stammered a bit, then answered, "I'm going to duck that one." Another reporter asked him whether he still trusted Blagojevich to make the appointment. "I am a citizen of Illinois, and I do have opinions and beliefs," he acknowledged. But pointing to the Justice Department logo on the podium in front of him, he continued: "When I speak, I speak on behalf of that seal, and that seal has no opinion on that matter."

The timing of the arrest could complicate matters for Fitzgerald -- and possibly for President-elect Barack Obama, who is mentioned in the charging documents because Blagojevich was allegedly trying to extort favors from him in exchange for appointing an Obama aide to his old Senate seat. Traditionally, all the U.S. attorneys would offer their resignation upon Obama's inauguration. But appointing someone new to the office in the middle of a politically sensitive prosecution could pose problems.

In fact, if Fitzgerald hadn't moved quickly on the arrests, the investigation might not have been public by the time Obama takes power. "I was not going to wait until March or April or May to bring charges and get it all nice and tidy, and then say, by the way, all the bad stuff happened back in December," he said.

Now that the probe has been revealed, though, the investigation will continue without all the secrecy that the wiretaps Fitzgerald got had required. Which could keep him -- or his successor -- busy for months to come.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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