CHICAGO - The words on the recording sound as if they were uttered by a mob boss. Instead, the feds say, it is the governor of Illinois speaking.
"I've got this thing and it's [expletive] golden, and I'm just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing. I'm not gonna do it," Democratic Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich says in a conversation intercepted by the FBI.
Federal prosecutors yesterday accused the 51-year-old Blagojevich of scheming to enrich himself by selling Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat for cash or a lucrative job for himself. In excerpts released by prosecutors, Blagojevich snarls profanities, makes threats, and demands and allegedly concocts a rich variety of schemes for profiting from his appointment of a new senator.
"I want to make money," he declares, according to court documents. Blagojevich allegedly had a salary in mind: $250,000 to $300,000 a year. (He earns $177,412 a year.)
Even in this city inured to political chicanery - three governors have been convicted in the last 35 years and numerous officeholders from Chicago have gone to prison for graft - the latest charges were stunning. And not just for the vulgarity, but for the naked greed, the recklessness and the self-delusion they suggest.
What is mystifying is why Blagojevich spoke so brazenly. He knew the feds were looking into his administration for the last three years for alleged hiring fraud; one of his top fund-raisers has been convicted, another is awaiting trial. He even warned some associates not to use the phone because "everybody's listening. . . . You hear me?"
Blagojevich also is no neophyte. He was baptized in the nitty-gritty of Chicago machine politics and confirmed in back-room bargaining and big-money deals. He spent years climbing the ladder, first as a state representative, then a congressman and finally governor. He was boosted to power by his father-in-law, Alderman Dick Mell, a veteran Democratic ward boss and longtime stalwart of the once-mighty machine.
And yet, in conversations recorded from late October to last week, Blagojevich seemed almost oblivious as he vented his frustrations about being "stuck" as governor, complained of "struggling" financially, and allegedly talked of using the Senate appointment to land a lucrative job in the private sector, or even an ambassadorship or a cabinet post.
'Off his rocker'
"It's about greed," said Don Rose, a longtime political strategist in Chicago. "He's got to be completely off his rocker to be talking like that at a time when he knows the feds are looking at him."
He also scoffed at the notion that Blagojevich had any chance of obtaining a post in Obama's cabinet. "The way he's talking about it is lunacy. . . . 'Maybe they'll make me secretary of health and human services.' Who's going to hire this guy?"
Paul Green, a political scientist at Roosevelt University, said: "If you're under so much scrutiny by an unbelievably dedicated U.S. Attorney's Office, why would you risk it all? This is a case less about politics and more about social psychology."
He 'had everything'
One of the story's most intriguing aspects was that Blagojevich was elected as Mr. Clean, vowing to clean up state government, succeeding Republican Gov. George Ryan, now behind bars for corruption.
He "had everything going for him," Green said. "He could have been the Serbian Obama."
In court papers, prosecutors said Blagojevich also tried to strong-arm political contributions in exchange for jobs and contracts, and tried to use his authority to get editorial writers from the Chicago Tribune who criticized him fired. He also discussed getting his wife, Patti, who has been in the real estate business, on corporate boards where she could earn up to $150,000 a year.
"I'm going to keep this Senate option open for me as a real possibility, you know, and therefore I can drive a hard bargain," he is quoted as saying. "You hear what I'm saying? And if I don't get what I want and I'm not satisfied with it, then I'll just take the Senate seat myself."
Later, he notes the seat is a "[expletive] valuable thing; you just don't give it away for nothing."