CHICAGO – Rod Blagojevich had been jealous of Barack Obama’s rise out of Illinois politics to the White House, one of his former top aides testified Tuesday, but the day after Obama’s victory rally in Chicago’s Grant Park, the governor was on the phone talking about a trump card that might turn his fortunes around.
“I’ve got this thing and it’s (expletive) golden,” Blagojevich said in a conversation secretly recorded by government agents. “I’m not just giving it up for (expletive) nothing.”
Blagojevich was talking to his onetime deputy governor, Doug Scofield, who had been part of his two campaigns for the state’s top office. Scofield found himself advising his former boss just as Obama was cruising toward winning the presidential election, and Blagojevich had a decision to make.
“The thing he’s referring to is his ability to appoint a senator,” Scofield testified moments after a wiretap of that call was played at Blagojevich’s corruption trial. “It’s valuable to him and he’s not giving that thing of value up for nothing or in exchange for nothing.”
The “golden” line has served as a virtual trademark for the government’s case ever since it was first publicized in a court document on the day of Blagojevich’s December 2008 arrest. But it was almost a month into the trial before the recording was played for jurors, as prosecutors continued to press the point that Blagojevich wasn’t interested in using his Senate pick for the good of the people of Illinois. Rather, prosecutors claim, he saw his power to fill the Senate vacancy as leverage to help himself as his political options were closing and a federal probe was swirling around him.
Blagojevich told Scofield on the call that he would take an appointment from Obama as secretary of Health and Human Services “in a second,” and if that didn’t materialize, he could “(expletive) parachute me there,” meaning appoint himself to the Senate.
Scofield testified he had left the new Blagojevich administration in 2003 in part because the role of Antoin “Tony” Rezko and fellow fundraiser Christopher Kelly left him uncomfortable. They went from raising campaign funds before the 2002 election to being key players in the transition period, including naming people to state boards and commissions.
Scofield said he rejoined the campaign for Blagojevich’s re-election in 2006 and later had more contact with him in 2008. Blagojevich was envious as Obama campaigned for the presidency and began to build momentum with primary wins, Scofield said.
“It was clear to me there was some jealousy and frustration about how Obama was doing,” Scofield said.
Tom Balanoff, Illinois head of the powerful Service Employees International Union, also testified Tuesday, saying that as the 2008 presidential election neared, Blagojevich had been testing the waters about who to appoint to the Senate post and how the governor could parlay that appointment into a political or personal payday for himself.
Balanoff, whose union was a major political donor to both Blagojevich and Obama, said he was dining at Shaw’s Crab House in the River North neighborhood on election eve when his cell phone rang. Balanoff said the caller ID was blocked, so he didn’t answer.
The caller left a message, however. “Tom, this is Barack. Give me a call,” Balanoff recalled for jurors.
Balanoff said he stopped for gas on his way home from Shaw’s when Obama finally reached him to talk about the Senate vacancy. As Balanoff recalled it, Obama said there were many good people who could fill the post and he wouldn’t be publicly supporting anyone in particular.
Blagojevich’s defense has painted Obama as actively trying to press the governor to pick the president’s friend, Valerie Jarrett, for the Senate and using emissaries such as Balanoff to haggle over the seat. Balanoff’s testimony left a very different impression – that Obama wasn’t overly wild about Jarrett’s desire to serve in the Senate and wasn’t invested in making that happen. Obama preferred Jarrett serve in the White House, Balanoff said.
In the days following the election, Balanoff said he had several talks with Blagojevich about the Senate seat both in person and on the phone. In addition to promoting Jarrett, Balanoff said he often pushed the name of U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, but Blagojevich seemed interested in only black candidates.
“He told me if she had any ancestors that came over on slave ships she would be fine,” Balanoff said of Schakowsky.
Blagojevich, Balanoff said, made hard-to-miss overtures about using the Senate appointment as a bargaining chip to gain a Cabinet appointment in the Obama administration or perhaps the lead role in a new issue-advocacy group that Obama would lean on wealthy donors to fund.
“He said ‘I love being governor, but my real passion is health care and if I could be secretary of Health and Human Services, I could pursue my passion,’ ” Balanoff said.
“I told him, that’s not going to happen,” Balanoff testified.
“Is that because of all of the investigations?” Balanoff said Blagojevich asked in a reference to the ongoing federal criminal probes into his administration.
“I asked, ‘Aren’t you worried?’ and he said, ‘No,’ ” Balanoff said.