If former Illinois Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich thought his problems were behind him, the worst lies ahead. Late in January the state legislature voted to impeach and expel him from office. But it’s not just his job but also his freedom that may be lost, thanks to pending testimony from his former chief of staff, John Harris. Harris yesterday pleaded guilty to a federal corruption charge. And whatever details he spills in court aren’t likely to make the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) look much better than Blagojevich. Nor are they likely to enhance the reputation of President Barack Obama.
Harris, now 47, served as Blagojevich’s chief of staff until seven months ago. Last December 9, FBI agents busted the pair for conspiring to sell or trade the U.S. Senate seat vacated by then-President-Elect Obama to the highest bidder. Harris resigned from office. Knowing they had a ready-made star witness, the feds pressed for a guilty plea in exchange for a reduced sentence and future testimony. The squeeze worked. Yesterday, July 8, Harris admitted in a signed plea agreement that on more than one occasion he talked to Blagojevich about naming a successor to Obama in exchange for cash and/or favors. Harris’ attorney, Terry Ekl, announced his client would take the witness stand to provide details about this and other acts of corruption. “I have never met a person who is going to be a better witness than John Harris is going to be,” Ekl said.
That may be an understatement. A 76-page FBI affidavit released in December by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois reveals what appears to be Blagojevich caught on court-authorized wiretaps and listening devices making self-incriminating statements. The evidence was part of a five-year federal investigation into corruption in Chicago politics. Harris pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel to one count of wire fraud based on a November 2008 phone conversation in which he discussed the possibility of appointing top Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to the Senate seat and getting the SEIU to broker the deal. In his plea agreement, Harris described a scheme by which Jarrett would get the seat and the governor in return would be appointed to a major position at the Change to Win labor federation whose largest member affiliate is the Service Employees. Jarrett, now a major figure in the Obama White House, was not mentioned by name in the plea, but has been identified as “Senate Candidate B.” The Service Employees union has denied all wrongdoing.
The scheme never took place. But afterward, Harris discussed two other potential persons whose appointment could benefit the governor. In one case, Gov. Blagojevich allegedly told Harris that he wanted the candidate’s entire campaign fund in return for the appointment. In the other, the pair discussed ways in which the candidate would raise $1.5 million to pay for the seat. Among those on the short list were Reps. Danny Davis, D-Ill., and Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill. The plea agreement read in part: “Defendant told Blagojevich that the appointment could either reward an ally or make a new ally but that Blagojevich could not trade the Senate seat for himself.” In addition to working for Change to Win, Blagojevich had expressed an interest in obtaining an ambassadorship or becoming Secretary of Health and Human Services in the new Obama administration.
The union connection in all this goes further than the Service Employees, which contributed roughly $85 million of the $450 million in union contributions to parties and candidates during the 2008 election cycle, overwhelmingly Democrat. Senator Obama’s eventual replacement was former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris. And Burris has had close ties to a pair of Chicago-area unions with a history of corruption: Laborers International Union of North America Local 1001 and International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 743. In each case, Burris had gone to bat for a union in hot water with federal prosecutors. And while Burris likely did not break any laws, the evidence is clear that his rise in politics, like that of Blagojevich, owed much to the Chicago underworld.
Harris may have a lot to say about all this on the witness stand, should the case go to trial. Prosecutors have agreed to recommend a sentence of no more than 35 months in prison in exchange for his cooperation. As it is, the plea agreement revealed that Harris had agreed under orders from Blagojevich to tell executives at the Chicago Tribune that they could expect no help no state help in selling the Chicago Cubs major league baseball team unless they fired editorial writers calling for the governor’s impeachment. The Illinois House of Representatives a month after the arrests impeached the governor anyway by a 114-1 margin, with the State Senate a few weeks later voting to convict by 59-0. Will Blagojevich go to prison? If Harris talks a lot – and he has plenty of incentive to do so – it would be hard to assume Blago can avoid that fate.