Blagojevich Questioning Takes Up Obama's Time

By: AP
By: AP

President-elect Barack Obama has said all along that neither he nor his team was involved in any eye-popping dealmaking over filling his vacated Senate seat. Obama's hand-picked investigator agreed.

"Everybody behaved appropriately," declared Greg Craig, Obama's incoming White House counsel and the person asked to conduct the internal inquiry into contacts between the transition team and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Prosecutors have said Obama is not implicated in the case against Blagojevich, accused of trying to sell Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder. But the corruption scandal has drained precious energy from Obama's preparations to take over the White House.

In addition to the time Craig devoted to the internal review that Obama requested, the topic also has surfaced at news conferences intended to highlight key appointments and policy priorities. And Obama himself had to sit down last week in Chicago for an interview by federal investigators, Craig's report revealed. Accompanying him was lawyer Robert Bauer, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Federal investigators last week also interviewed two top Obama aides, incoming chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. Though Craig completed his review more than a week ago, Obama delayed making it public until those interviews were finished and U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald gave his team the go-ahead to put it out.

The inquiry was released Tuesday in Washington while Obama was vacationing in Hawaii. Though Obama has taken questions on the matter on five occasions since Blagojevich's Dec. 9 arrest, the president-elect did not make himself available Tuesday to talk about it.

Blagojevich is accused of trying to use his authority as governor to appoint Obama's Senate replacement to get cash or a lucrative job for himself, starting days before Obama's Nov. 4 election through Dec. 5. The governor has denied any criminal wrongdoing and has resisted multiple calls for his resignation, including from Obama.

Wiretapped conversations cited in the criminal complaint against Blagojevich were not available to the Obama lawyers who conducted the internal review.

The report states, as Obama has said, that the president-elect had no contact about the seat with the governor or his aides. Further, no one on Obama's transition team discussed any deals or had any knowledge of deals, Craig's report said.

Emanuel was the only Obama transition team member who discussed the Senate appointment with Blagojevich or his aides, and those conversations were "totally appropriate and acceptable," Craig said.

Those with knowledge of the federal investigation have said that Emanuel is not a target in the case. There also is no indication that Jarrett ever was a target, a transition official said. Like Obama, both were accompanied by lawyers for their interviews with the prosecutor's staff, Gibbs said.

Fitzgerald's criminal complaint quotes the governor's conversations with aides, including discussions about swapping the appointment if Obama provided a Cabinet post or an ambassadorship or helped raise millions for a private foundation Blagojevich could tap for personal use.

Obama's report states that none of Blagojevich's aides reached out to the president-elect's staff. The report only notes that Obama friend Eric Whitaker was approached by one of Blagojevich's top aides to learn "who, if anyone, had the authority to speak for the president-elect" about the Senate appointment.

Obama told Whitaker that "no one was authorized to speak for him" and that "he had no interest in dictating the result of the selection process," according to the report.

Emanuel had "one or two telephone calls" with Blagojevich and four conversations with John Harris, the governor's chief of staff, who later resigned after being charged in the federal case, the report says. Craig told reporters Emanuel said he couldn't be sure it was only one call.

The report said Emanuel had recommended Jarrett for the Senate seat without Obama's knowledge. Jarrett later accepted a job as a senior White House adviser.

Obama authorized Emanuel to pass on the names of four people he considered to be highly qualified to take over his seat: Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes, Illinois Veterans' Affairs Director Tammy Duckworth, Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., the report said.

Others Obama considered to be qualified candidates, including Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Chicago Urban League Director Cheryle Jackson, were offered later, the report said.

"Mr. Harris did not make any effort to extract a personal benefit for the governor in any of these conversations," the report said.

During Emanuel's interview Saturday, federal authorities played for him a taped recording of at least one conversation he had with Blagojevich's office, according to a transition official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss information not included in the report.

Emanuel left for a long-planned family vacation in Africa on Tuesday and was not available for comment. Harris' lawyer, James Sotos, declined to comment.

Blagojevich attorney Edward M. Genson, who has said the prosecutor's allegations are built on nothing beyond talk, said Obama's report proves his point.

Obama's report details a conversation about the appointment between Jarrett and Tom Balanoff, head of the Illinois chapter of the Service Employees International Union, in which Balanoff told her that Blagojevich had "raised with him" the idea of being appointed Health and Human Services secretary.

Balanoff informed Jarrett he had told Blagojevich it wouldn't happen, and Jarrett agreed, discounting the notion as "ridiculous," the report states.

However, there was never any suggestion in the conversation that Blagojevich was linking the Senate appointment to the possible Cabinet posting, the report states.

SEIU officials are referenced, but not named, in the FBI affidavit, and Balanoff is believed to be one of them.

Blagojevich mentioned in a Nov. 5 conversation taped by the FBI that he would take the HHS job or "various ambassadorships" in exchange for appointing Obama's choice, according to an affidavit filed with the federal complaint. The affidavit states he discussed it again days later with an unnamed SEIU official, believed to be Balanoff.

The governor told advisers in a Nov. 10 discussion that "it was unlikely" Obama would give him the HHS appointment or an ambassadorship, and he discussed other favors he could seek, according to the complaint.

Obama's report also addresses confusion over earlier statements by David Axelrod, a top adviser who had said at one point that Obama discussed the Senate appointment with Blagojevich. Axelrod had discussed potential recommendations for the Senate appointment with Obama and Emanuel, and "was under the impression" that it would be Obama who would offer those to Blagojevich.

"He later learned that it was Mr. Emanuel who conveyed those names," the report states.

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