Blagojevich Resurfaces

When everyone's crooked, nobody is.

We've been fascinated by the shenanigans of Illinois Democrat Gov. Rod Blagojevich every since President then-elect Obama resigned his seat in the US Senate, and thereby gave Gov. Blagojevich the opportunity to appoint his successor after auctioning it off to the highest bidder.

"Crook County" political corruption has been legendary for at least a century, but we had never seen Illinois style corruption operate at the national level before.  Even the famously dogged federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who had seen just about everything, called this scheme "staggering."  Mr. Fitzgerald won a conviction in court and Gov. Blagojevich became the fifth out of the last seven Illinois governors to spend time in the Big House, the second in a row, and the fourth Democrat.

Before his conviction, 79 high Illinois officials had been convicted of felonies in the last 30 years, including U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D, IL), the chairman of the financially influential House Ways and Means Committee where Rep. Rangel (D, NY, ret) sat for decades corrupting in his turn.

It turned out that Gov. Blagojevich eventually appointed Ronald Burris to the coveted seat, after having several talks with him about getting money to himself by one means or another.  This was an element of the pattern of corruption which sent the governor to jail.

Gov. Blagojevich also engaged in other forms of corruption.  Page 39 of the criminal complaint issued by the United States against him refers to "a law which involves directing a percentage of casino revenue to the horse racing industry" which the governor signed.  Reading the transcript of the conversations between the governor and "Fund raiser A" at the behest of "Contributor 1" suggests that the horse track people shared their loot with the governor who signed the law which made it possible.

Ironically enough, Governor Blago ran on a platform of "change," selling himself as a reformer who claimed to be much cleaner than his jailed predecessors.  Who knows, maybe he even was!  At least in Illinois, we don't believe in term limits for politicians: they should serve their full sentences.

Why Let Him Out?

Thus we were somewhat startled to hear that President Trump was considering issuing a pardon to Gov. Blagojevich.  Shouldn't corruptocrats spend as much time in jail as we can arrange?  As many people have pointed out, unless there's some serious jail time for people who weaponized our intelligence agencies against Mr. Trump's election campaign and his administration after he won, the same thing will happen all over again as soon as Democrats retake the White House - and in the meantime, it will keep happening as long as they're embedded in every bureaucracy from coast to coast.

So why let Gov. Blago off the hook?  It turns out that once again, we were out in front a bit.

Back in 2010, we wrote that American politics was becoming so rich in shady deals that they were becoming more or less normal.  The laws involved are so arcane that outsiders will inevitably run afoul of them.  This helps preserve political power for well-connected elites who can conjure up violations of arcane laws by their enemies while letting their friends get off.

Indeed, it is precisely the sentiment that what Gov. Blago did is more or less normal politics that makes Mr. Trump's thoughts of pardoning Gov. Blago seem at least somewhat reasonable.  Vox shares our bewilderment that Mr. Trump might issue a pardon but reports:

An appellate panel concluded that it would not, in fact, have been illegal for Blagojevich to try to trade the Senate appointment for a Cabinet appointment for himself, since both are "public acts." Now, Blagojevich had also sought various financial and private benefits (the nonprofits posts for him and board seats for his wife), and the appellate judges agreed there was sufficient evidence to convict him for that reason. But the jury had been told that they could convict him even if only the Cabinet allegation was proven.

This new standard saying that "public acts" are OK would seem to permit Hillary earmarking millions of federal dollars to build a highway interchange near a shopping mall owned by a Clinton Foundation donor as a "public act."  In other words, the court declared that wheeling and dealing is normal politics and isn't criminal, just as we had predicted would happen.

Defining Corruption Down

This may be the "new normal" for political corruption.  The New York Times tells us that federal prosecutors dropped corruption charges against Robert McDonnell, a former Republican governor of Virginia.  He had appealed a corruption conviction to the United States Supreme Court, which overturned it in June 2016.

The McDonnells were charged in 2014, soon after Mr. McDonnell left office, in an indictment that presaged a sensational trial in Richmond, the Virginia capital. During the five-week trial, prosecutors depicted the former first couple as materialistic to the point of corruption because they accepted luxury gifts and low-interest loans from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., who sought the governor's help in advancing his business interests.

The benefits and gifts, including a Rolex, designer clothes and financial aid for a daughter's wedding, were worth more than $175,000. Although the gifts were allowed under Virginia law, prosecutors successfully argued to a jury that the McDonnells, whose legal fates were often seen as intertwined, had violated federal anticorruption statutes. A judge later sentenced Mr. McDonnell to two years in prison, and Ms. McDonnell to a little more than a year.  [emphasis added]

The Times described the unanimous Supreme Court ruling which exonerated the pair:

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the court, narrowed the definition of what sort of conduct can serve as the basis of a corruption prosecution. He said only formal and concrete government actions counted - filing a lawsuit, say, or making an administrative determination. Routine political courtesies like arranging meetings or urging underlings to consider a matter, he added, generally do not, even when the people seeking those favors give the public officials gifts or money.

The alternative to the new limits, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, would be to criminalize routine political behavior. "Conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf and include them in events all the time," he wrote.  [emphasis added]

Justice Roberts didn't point out that "Conscientious public officials" are much more eager to arrange such favors on behalf of whomever gives them generous campaign contributions.  He confirmed, and SCOTUS endorsed, the classic saying, "We have the best representatives that money can buy."

We agree with Anna Scholl, of Progress Virginia, who said the decision "essentially gives elected officials a blank check to trade gifts for access and 'unofficial' favors."  Virginia voters seem to agree.  Although he had been popular enough that voters didn't want him to languish in jail, it's pretty clear that his political career is over because of what Justice Roberts called a "tawdry tale."  We stand with Harry Truman, who said, "You can't get rich in politics unless you're a crook."

With respect to Don Blago and Hillary, we'd argue that signing a law transferring taxpayer money to race track proprietors after they'd paid him off, or signing off on transferring uranium to a business controlled by the Soviet Union after receiving a half-million dollar speaking fee, ought to count towards prosecution - but maybe not.  These actions might indeed be considered "Routine political courtesies" - they certainly seem to be routine anyway!

What Governor McDonnell did is no longer legal - in 2015, after his conviction, Virginia lawmakers imposed a $100 limit on gifts from lobbyists.  They don't seem to have imposed restrictions on campaign contributions, though, and it's hard to see how the First Amendment would allow them to do that effectively.

We aren't sure that the normalization of corruption is enough of a reason for Mr. Trump to pardon Don Blago.  We suspect that it's because of his good fortune to have appeared as a contestant on future President Donald Trump's reality TV show, The Celebrity Apprentice.  He made it four weeks before being fired when he called the famed Harry Potter school for witchcraft and wizardry "Hogwards" rather than "Hogwarts," and referred to "classes" rather than "houses."  This showed incompetent research, and Mr. Trump thundered, "You're fired!"

Could it be that Mr. Trump's thinking of letting him out for old times' sake?  But that's not corrupt, as no money changed hands - it's not like Gov. Blago has any, or Trump needs it.

Anyway, keeping the ex-Governor locked up is surely costing the taxpayers a pretty penny.  Assuming he doesn't get elected to any other position, he won't be in a position to fleece the taxpayers any further, so he's unlikely to re-offend.  Having spent several years in Club Fed, he's probably as much of a warning to other pols as he's likely to be, so maybe it's best to just shrug and let him out.

And that'll free up a nice comfy cell for some other politico that has yet to see the inside of one.  What's not to like?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Politics.
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