By R. Tamara de Silva
December 7, 2011
Former Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years today for trying to sell President Obama’s vacant Senate seat or as the indictment stated, “efforts to illegally obtain campaign contributions in exchange for official action.” Is it wrong to try to sell a Senate seat for personal gain? Of course it is. What the jury considered Blagojevich to have done was essentially commit attempted graft, or the act of attempting to profit or profiting from a political office for personal gain. However, getting excited about Blagojevich’s conviction is a bit naïve. Despite all the time, publicity and millions of dollars spent on this single prosecution, in Illinois today there is still no conflict of interest rule regime in place, to prevent the trading of government office and services for personal gain-not even now. Blagojevich’s conviction is bread and circuses that will for a time appease the gullible masses and unquestioning press. Bloodletting occurred and an unpopular and loudmouth politician with unforgivable hair succumbed to the lions as the crowds cheered.
What was punished today will be repeated tomorrow and all tomorrows thereafter, but without fanfare and long after the Blagojevich jokes have subsided because Illinois law, insofar that it does not meaningfully outlaw conflicts of interest by those in elected office to prevent self-dealing and graft, seems to condone it. Graft is the currency of Illinois politics and government, especially in Cook County. It occurs every day and on every floor of Chicago’s City Hall. In Illinois, the act of differentiating between graft and what passes for legal local government operation in so many local government agencies is the pass on a razor’s edge or an exercise in sophistry.
Graft, Horse-Trading, Earmarks and Lobbyists
Ideally, Blagojevich’s case should be used to reexamine the role of graft and quid pro quo in politics-that is if the very premise of my suggestion is not itself horridly naïve in that horse trading, is a close cousin of graft and arises out of a shared principle-quid pro quo. Is graft very much different from efforts to legally obtain campaign contributions in exchange for official action? The rationale for what is legal and what is illegal in quid pro quo deals in politics ought to have no bearing on who the party is that is doing the asking and getting.
Arguably, the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on earmarks for pet projects by legislators for their projects back home are manifestations of quid pro quo thinly disguised under the veil of constituent democracy in action. When Congress or the White House does it, it cannot be called, “democracy,” “lobbying” or “free speech,” and criminal extortion or bribery if done by someone else…or can it?
Legislation creates industry, first by lobbyists and then many cottage industries to explain the legislation and its impact and meaning. The other effect of legislation other than the growth of government itself is earmarks–earmarks are simply quid pro quo.
In the case of congressional earmarks and sweetheart Washington deals, or just garden variety official action for campaign contributions, it seems at times that the line between illegal pay for play in politics and official quid pro quo is paper-thin.
For example, by the admission of the White House on May 28, 2010, White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor, Rahm Emanuel apparently asked former President Bill Clinton to ask Rep. Joe Sestak to drop a Democratic Pennsylvania Senate bid against Sen. Arlen Specter, in return offering unpaid advisory positions. What if the offer was simply phrased as, “I’ll trade you Secretary of the Navy for you not to run against Spectre?” Can this be legal, however it was phrased? Or is this not quintessentially quid pro quo?
The dismissal of all charges against former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) demonstrates how thorny public corruption cases can be probably because we are entering the grayest of modern areas in present day politics. What is politics without an examination of the almost direct relationship between earmarks and campaign contributions-think about this-because politics cannot exist without both, at every level? Legislation creates industry, first by lobbyists and then many cottage industries to explain the legislation and its impact and meaning. The other effect of legislation other than the growth of government itself is earmarks–earmarks are quid pro quo.
It is in this gray area that congressional earmarking thrives. Like in the markets increased transparency might have an impact on some of the most corruptive elements of the practice, but it is still a gamble and members of Congress must think that there is a better than even chance that it will pay off for years; they might escape detection and prosecution.
Arguably the only good earmark is a dead earmark. But by this logic, many laws would never get passed and politics would grind to a halt at the state and federal level. Using earmarks to buy campaign contributions, as pay offs to political cronies, to employ your relatives or your former staff members (all practices which are commonly found in earmarking) constitutes quid pro quo.
Ear-marks, which are legally given often times for campaign contributions are considered to be the legal part of quid pro quo in our political system. What is politics without an examination of the almost direct relationship between earmarks and campaign contributions? Think about this-because politics cannot exist without both, at every level. Lobbyists give campaign contributions for earmarks in legislation. Harry Reid received almost $1,000,000 in 2010 election cycle out of $4,447,000 spent by the Vegas casinos to keep online gambling illegal. Harry Reid lobbies to keep online gambling illegal and is the casinos’ staunchest advocate on the issue. If this is not quid pro quo, what is it?
Pay to Play, the Illinois Way
Getting back to graft in Illinois, there are about a handful of politicians that divide the assets of the state and local governments like a Christmas pie and they do so by institutionalizing graft. Governor Blagojevich, though accused of being insufferably tacky at times, was in reality and despite his attraction to the spot light and its fascination of him, somewhat of a bit player. Someone once wrote that Illinois is different from every other state in that it was the one absolutely corrupt state in the Union. No one with anything but a cursory understanding of Illinois politics (a certain prominent columnist comes to mind) would dispute this.
To those that are inclined to think that Blagojevich’s conviction will send a lesson to other Illinois politicians, you need read no further. To those more critically inclined, consider a few anecdotes that follow (there are so many others but their inclusion would be outside the scope of a blog) in light of mathematical set theory and you will see that while Blagojevich intersected with the lords of Cook County, he never really controlled the throne-not even close.
The largest real estate tax firms that practice at the Cook County Board of Review, the agency that adjudicates property tax appeals in Cook County contribute to their Commissioners. Law firms and lawyers are paid a percentage of the tax savings they achieve for their clients in front of this tax appeal board-they achieve savings of hundreds of millions of dollars every year. The heads of many of these law firms are also among the most powerful politicians and legislators in Illinois. Of course, these lawyers and law firms (coincidentally) have contributed millions of dollars to the campaign war-chests of the Commissioners and their staff at the tax appeal boards.
It would be entirely cynical and not for me to suggest that anything approximating graft were to occur at these agencies, though in the spirit of disclosure I do represent Cook County residents in three separate Federal lawsuits that allege that an institutionalization of pay to play (graft) occurs.
Or consider that almost half of the over 400 current sitting state judges in Cook County were slated and ultimately elected due to backing by the Judicial Slating Committee of the Cook County Democratic Party. The slating process is opaque and political-mired in the political traditions and conflicts of interest of old time Chicago politics. While I could be mistaken, I do not believe there are any Republican judges at the circuit level, in effect one person is judge-maker or de facto head of the Judicial Branch. The requirement of no conflicts of interests on the part of the slate maker does not exist.
After Governor Blagojevich was caught trying to peddle President Obama’s open Senate seat, the President came into town on October 2010 to raise campaign funds for Governor Pat Quinn and Alexi Giannoulias, who was running for Obama’s open Senate seat.
Coincidentally and because it is a small world as it were, Alexi Giannoulais’s father had contributed $10,000 to Blagojevich. In 2003, Blagojevich’s then fundraiser Tony Rezko (who has since been convicted of fraud and bribery) sponsored Demetris Giannoulias (Alexi’s brother) for an appointment with the Illinois Finance Authority. Governor Blagojevich went on to appoint Demetris Giannoulias to the Illinois Finance Authority. On June 29, 2005, Alexis Giannoulias contributes $10,000 to Friends of Blagojevich. Coincidentally, on September 1, 2005, Rod Blagojevich reappointed Demetris Giannoulias to the Illinois Finance Authority Board.
From 2006-2008, Giannoulias, had worked for President Obama’s campaign and contributed to it. Giannoulias is a fixture at the East Bank Club where he played basketball regularly with then Senator Obama. President Obama endorsed Giannoulias for State Treasurer in 2006. When Giannoulias ran for State Treasurer, he promised to revitalize the State’s 529 college savings plan called Bright Start. Under his watch the college savings plan lost nearly $150 million before $77 million was recouped by a settlement.
By way of some background, Giannoulias was also the senior loan officer at his family’s Broadway Bank. During his tenor there the Bank loaned a convicted mobster and pimp, Michael “Jaws” Durango $15.4 million. Broadway Bank also loaned Tony Rezko $23 million.
In August 2011, Governor Pat Quinn appointed Alexi Giannoulias to serve as chairman of the Illinois Community College Board.
Blagojevich intersected with many of the most powerful politicians in Illinois but somehow lacked their finesse because they remain in office while he is to begin serving his prison sentence on February 6, 2012.
If United States District Judge James Zagel is correct in remarking during sentencing that Blagojevich deserves his 14 year sentence because, “When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily repaired…The harm is the erosion of public trust in government,” then the public must demand this trust be restored by taking the trouble to notice what actually happens in Illinois government every single day. If a message is intended to be sent to other politicians, it will not be delivered unless meaningful conflict of interest laws are instituted in Illinois. Otherwise, Blagojevich will like the three governors before him, be considered a one-off event.@
R Tamara de Silva
December 7, 2011
*By way of disclosure, I used to work with Sam E. Adam and Sam F. Adam, the same lawyers that represented Governor Blagojevich during his first trial when he was only convicted of one charge, obstruction of justice and walked on 23 remaining counts as a result of a hung jury. While I did not work on the Blagojevich case, Sam F. Adam is my mentor in the criminal law and I consider to him the best living criminal defense lawyer.