Rezko verdict a blow to what governing capital Blagojevich had left
Illinois’ dysfunctional state government just got more dysfunctional.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s ability to get big things passed by the General Assembly has already been severely hampered by five years of clashes. The conviction Wednesday of Blagojevich fundraiser and adviser Antoin “Tony” Rezko on 16 corruption charges makes any attempt at rehabilitating Blagojevich’s power of persuasion much more difficult.
“I think that the governor has very, very serious problems, and I think what little political capital he may have held onto before this trial, he has lost,” said Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
“There have been rumors … for the last two years that the governor might be facing some sort of indictment,” Canary said. “Now, none of us know whether that’s true or not, and the U.S. attorney works on his own clock. But I think that this will only add momentum to those rumors.”
Canary’s group has spent years working on ethics legislation, and lawmakers last week sent the governor House Bill 824, which would, among other things, bar people with state contracts worth more than $50,000 from contributing to the official who awarded that contract, or to that officeholder’s opponent in an election year.
But Blagojevich, who has scheduled summer fundraisers seeking thousands of dollars from top donors, has indicated he would use his veto power to improve the bill, instead of signing it into law as passed unanimously.
“I don’t think that Governor Blagojevich is someone we should trust to improve an ethics bill,” Canary said, predicting that any changes will be overridden.
But asked if Rezko’s case had helped get the pay-to-play ban passed, Canary laughed in agreement.
“Tony helped,” she said. “Chris Kelly helped. The governor helped. You know, if this was the Academy Awards, we’d thank them all.”
Kelly, another chief Blagojevich fundraiser, faces a separate indictment on tax fraud charges linked to gambling debts. While those charges aren’t linked to state government, Blagojevich had enlisted Kelly’s help early in the administration in a failed attempt to try to find a way to bring a 10th state casino license on line.
Blagojevich has said that Rezko recommended at least four people who became agency or state authority directors, and Canary said information from the trial showed “the links between the governor and Tony Rezko ran very, very deep.”
“I think one could say (that) early in this administration, it was as much the Rezko administration as it was the Blagojevich administration,” she said.
Blagojevich this year seemed to understand that his relationship with lawmakers, battered by controversies including a summer of special sessions called last year during budget battles, needed bolstering. That’s why he enlisted former U.S. House Speaker Denny Hastert and Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard to create a bipartisan front in hopes of passing what turned into a $34 billion statewide construction program. It didn’t happen, with House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, continuing to say a lack of trust in the governor was a problem.
State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Woodstock, a frequent Blagojevich critic, said he thinks Blagojevich had exhausted any goodwill even before this year’s session.
“He didn’t get the capital bill done because he didn’t have any political capital to spend,” Franks said.
“I think people knew this was going to come down,” Franks said of the Rezko convictions, “and obviously, the ultimate goal of the feds is the governor. This is what they did with (convicted former Gov.) George Ryan. They got his underlings and lieutenants first.”
“Personally, it’s a matter of when, not if,” Franks said of Blagojevich being indicted.
Franks added that Rezko’s conviction, following Republican Ryan being found guilty of corruption, shows that “leaders from both parties have put our government up for sale.”
And he said any attempts by the governor to sell a major program now will be stifled because Blagojevich won’t be able to lobby in public without facing questions about corruption.
Not all lawmakers think Blagojevich should take such heat from the Rezko verdict.
Blagojevich wasn’t directly involved in the allegations in the trial, noted state Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria.
“If he has any involvement, he needs to be charged,” Koehler said. “If not, we need to leave it alone. Innuendo is not a fair way to go about this.”
Meanwhile, the verdicts Wednesday appear to be positive for Springfield developer and fundraiser Bill Cellini, who was not charged with any wrongdoing but whose name came up in the testimony. He was mentioned as participating in discussions that involved Teachers’ Retirement System funds going to an investment firm of Tom Rosenberg, a movie producer. One count on which Rezko was acquitted Wednesday was an allegation that there was attempted extortion of Rosenberg in order for his firm to get an allocation of TRS funds.
Blagojevich issued a statement Wednesday calling Rezko a friend and expressing sadness for Rezko and his family. But he said he still plans to meet today with legislative leaders “so that we can balance the budget in a way that is fair and helps people.”
Lawmakers passed a $59 billion budget Saturday for the fiscal year beginning July 1, but Blagojevich says it is more than $2 billion out of balance. Key legislative Democrats have said Blagojevich should cut the budget by line-item veto if he considers the spending plan too big.
Blagojevich also said he continues to work on a capital spending bill.
Canary said major Statehouse issues such as the capital bill have been complicated by a governor with “some dark ethical clouds over his head.”
“At the same time, you’ve got legislative leaders who are at each other’s throats,” she said. “For something to get done, somebody’s going to have to step up and be the grownup. Maybe it’s (the) rank-and-file. We’ll see.”
Doug Finke contributed to this report. Bernard Schoenburg can be reached at (217) 788-1540 or firstname.lastname@example.org.