Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

How Rod Blagojevich Tried to Win Big at the Tracks

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    NEWSLETTERS

     

     

     

    Lon Monk, Rod Blagojevich’s former chief of staff and current Judas, testified today that Blagojevich tried to extort a $100,000 campaign contribution from the owner of Balmoral Park, a harness racetrack in Crete, Illinois.

    Supposedly, Blagojevich asked John Johnston for $100,000 in exchange for signing a bill that would give Illinois racetracks 3-percent of the revenue from the state’s casinos.

    That sounds like a pretty sleazy demand, until you remember that Blagojevich had already signed the same bill two years before. And the Johnston family had already given Blagojevich $95,000 in legal campaign contributions.

    Ever since casino gambling was legalized in Illinois in the early 1990s the horse racing industry has been demanding a piece of the action.

    They had a strong case: the state had once granted them a monopoly on legal gambling but now was taking away that monopoly. The reversal left them with mounting costs.

    It’s a lot more expensive to maintain a Thoroughbred than a slot machine and the racetracks still had to feed the horses, house the grooms, and pay the seamstresses who sew those colorful silks for the jockeys. But a lot of gamblers who once came out to the racetrack to mindlessly play a lucky number were now heading to the boats, where they didn’t have to wait half-an-hour between bets. Arlington Park closed in 1998 and 1999 to protest competition from casinos.

    The bill that awaited Blagojevich’s signature in 2008 was a renewal of a 2006 law that had already forced casinos to set aside $80 million for racetracks. But that money was being held in escrow because the casinos had sued, claiming the law violated the state constitution. During the lawsuit, the original law expired, making the extension necessary.

    Would Blagojevich have vetoed that bill just because a harness track didn’t pony up $100,000? That would also have hurt the much more influential Thoroughbred tracks, Arlington and Hawthorne. And Blagojevich would have looked like a tool of the casino industry for reversing course on a bill he’d signed two years before.

    When Blagojevich allegedly approached the Johnstons, he was demanding the same campaign contribution he’d already received from the family, and offering to sign the same bill he’d signed once before.

    That raises a question that’s going to come up a lot at this trial: when is it bribery, and when is it politics?