With federal prosecutors hoping to bring Rod Blagojevich back to trial on at least some of the 23 counts on which the jury could not reach a decision, his legal record is far from set. But his effect on state law will affect campaigns and administrations to come.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s legacy is not yet set in stone.
The fact that a jury found he lied makes him the second Illinois governor in a row to be convicted of a federal crime. Making false statements — the charge on which he was found guilty — can yield five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
But with federal prosecutors telling the judge Tuesday they expect to bring Blagojevich back to trial on at least some of the 23 counts on which the jury could not reach a decision, his legal record is far from set. (A juror told The Associated Press Tuesday evening that the vote was 11-1 to convict Blagojevich of the most highly publicized charge, that the former governor schemed to sell the U.S. Senate seat that formerly belonged to President Barack Obama.)
Still, unless his appeal is successful, Blagojevich will be added to the list of Illinois governors, including George Ryan and Otto Kerner, who were convicted of felonies linked to official actions, and Dan Walker, convicted of financial corruption not based on activities in office.
And, whatever happens in any future trial, the Blagojevich era has already led to changes in state law that will affect campaigns and administrations to come.
The alleged pay-to-play and other unethical activity that came to light during the reign and trial of Blagojevich led to some reforms, says David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform,
A state law that bars entities bidding on contracts worth $50,000 a year or more from contributing to officeholders or candidates who would be in charge of those contracts has already taken effect. In fact, trial testimony showed, the fact the restriction took effect in January 2009 apparently made Blagojevich redouble his efforts to collect campaign cash quickly from state contractors.
Also already passed, Morrison said, is a measure placing a range of limits on contributions starting in 2011. For example, in each election cycle, a candidate’s political committee will be able to accept only $5,000 from an individual, $10,000 from a corporation, labor union or association, and $50,000 from a political action committee.
Even though the jury didn’t reach a verdict on most criminal charges against him, Blagojevich still did more damage to the state of Illinois’ finances and management than was reflected in the allegations of corruption, a longtime observer of Illinois government believes.
“He planted fiscal time bombs that are going to damage the state for decades,” said Mike Lawrence, a veteran journalist who was Gov. Jim Edgar’s press secretary.
Those time bombs include increased state debt, starting with $10 billion borrowed in his first year in office, mostly to shore up pension systems.
Many career state workers took early retirement just as Blagojevich came into office, but Lawrence thinks more decided to retire because of who was taking over the top job.
“He really eviscerated the management corps in state government,” Lawrence said. “He obviously did not care about the day-to-day management of state government, and it is going to take decades to build in the kind of expertise and ability that was contained in that management structure.”
Besides retirements, Blagojevich did not renew the term appointments of some “very qualified people,” Lawrence said.
“It’s one thing for a new governor to look at people who were hired in a previous administration as a result of their political connections and decide that he wants people who are loyal to him in those positions,” Lawrence said. “It’s quite another to take professionals in public health and other areas and not renew their term appointments.”
The specter of another Blagojevich trial could keep the former Democratic governor’s name in the headlines until or well beyond the Nov. 2 election.
The fact that current Gov. Pat Quinn was Blagojevich’s lieutenant governor and that House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, co-chaired Blagojevich’s 2006 re-election campaign are issues Republicans will try hard to keep alive during the upcoming campaign.
“The entire case was a black eye for Illinois, but made even worse by the fact that Pat Quinn, Mike Madigan and the Democrats stood by this man, supported his re-election and later denied the public the right to a special election for the U.S. Senate seat Blagojevich had tried to sell,” Pat Brady, chairman of the state GOP, said in a statement.
Democrats will continue to stress that Blagojevich is not really one of them. Quinn and Blagoevich barely, if ever, spoke toward the end of the governor’s term. The House and Senate, led by Democrats, impeached and expelled Blagojevich from his former office.
“While jurors deadlocked on many charges, they clearly confirmed the former governor’s pattern of dishonesty,” said Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, in a statement.
“I voted to remove Mr. Blagojevich because he was clearly unable to govern, demonstrated disdain for the laws and processes of our state and pathologically abused his power without regard for the people he was elected to serve,” Cullerton added. “I ask my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to recall how we worked together to resolve this crisis of integrity. I ask that that the same spirit of cooperation be used to finally address the lingering challenges facing our state.”
Bernard Schoenburg can be reached at 788-1540.