The Saga of Public Official A

Governor long denied what everyone knew

View Comments ()
|
Email
|
Print

    NEWSLETTERS

    AFP/Getty Images
    The Chicago Tribune has learned that federal investigators had the help of a former aide in acquiring a secret audio recording of Gov. Rod Blagojevich at work.

    In September 2005, Chicago lawyer and power-broker Joe Cari – a onetime finance chair for the Democratic National Committee – agreed to a plea bargain with federal authorities investigating a kickback scheme involving the state teacher pension board. Contained in the plea deal was an allegation that, as reported by the Sun-Times at the time, “Gov. Blagojevich  and two top fund-raisers schemed to steer lucrative state pension deals to investment firms and consultants who agreed to donate to Blagojevich's campaign, a key figure in a widening corruption probe claims he's been told.”

    In fact, the plea bargain didn’t mention Blagojevich but instead referred to Public Official A. By the end of the day, though, most reporters working the story knew Public Official A was the governor, no matter how vociferously he denied it.

    The sobriquet would become so familiar in the local political discourse that it gained its own Wikipedia page.

    The Cari plea deal broke the dam on a federal investigation known as Operation Board Games that rocked a state political establishment still not healed from the scandal that sent Blagojevich's predecessor, George Ryan, to jail, and even tainted President-Elect Barack Obama, whose long personal and financial relationship Tony Rezko would come under scrutiny in his campaign for both the Democratic nomination for president and the general election.

    The indictment of Public Official A is not the end of the investigation, but in a sense it is the beginning of the end. In the interim, Blagojevich managed to get re-elected only to watch his approval rating tumble to 13 percent amid gridlock and scandal.

    Judy Baar Topinka must be tearing her hair out.

    It was at a gubernatorial debate in 2006 when Topinka, the Republican nominee, tried to stoke outrage about the incumbent governor.

    “Republican Judy Baar Topinka chided Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Friday for having ‘the most investigated administration’ in state history, while Blagojevich said the state treasurer's hypocrisy on ethics made it hard for him to breathe,” the Tribune reported at the time.

    “Marking the first formal face-to-face appearance of the two major candidates in the Nov. 7 election for governor, Topinka repeatedly jabbed at Blagojevich for elevating ‘pay to play’ politics to ‘an art form.’ The first-term Democrat has faced criticism over administration contracts that went to his allies and donors.

    “Topinka also noted allegations, raised in a federal plea agreement, that a prominent government official cited only as ‘Public Official A’ had orchestrated a scheme to siphon campaign cash and reward donors.

    "’I still have a name. You're 'Public Official A,' she told Blagojevich.”

    Topinka added that “He is the new George Ryan.”

    Blagojevich easily won re-election – and continued to deny he was the Public Official A cited in numerous court filings.

    In December 2007, the Sun-Times reported that “U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald cautioned Thursday that people shouldn't jump to conclusions about three people linked to Gov. Blagojevich being indicted on the same day.

    “But, for the second time, the governor is identified in a federal corruption indictment - this time as ‘Public Official A.’ a source close to the investigation said.

    “Former investment banker P. Nicholas Hurtgen allegedly told a hospital executive ‘Official A’ wanted hospital projects steered to a preferred contractor, and that the desire to reward that contractor was ‘all about money’ for political campaigns, Hurtgen's indictment alleges. The governor's office issued a forceful denial, claiming not to be that public official.”

    Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association, said at the time that "It's like the game Battleship, and the shots are landing all around him.”

    Last January, Blagojevich dismissed the corruption probes surrounding him as “tangential” and “collateral” and blamed the media for “trying to sell newspapers.”

    As jury selection was getting underway last February in the trial of Tony Rezko, a federal judge finally stated openly that Blagojevich was Public Official A.

    A couple of days later, the governor said the judge was simply wrong. "My reaction is it doesn't matter what letter of the alphabet it is. What was described there doesn't describe me or how I do things," Blagojevich  said.

    The Sun-Times reported that “Blagojevich 's refusal to fess up to being ‘Public Official A’ drew ridicule, scorn and laughter from some of his critics in Springfield.

    "To continue to deny he's Public Official A after the judge in the case has publicly confirmed he is is tantamount to lunacy," said Rep. Jack Franks (D-Woodstock).

    The Rezko trial laid bare the (alleged) way that business was done in the Blagojevich administration, with the biggest blow being dealt by Ali Ata, the former director of the Illinois Finance Authority. According to the Sun-Timesreport, Ata testified that "the governor gave him a $127,000-a-year state job in exchange for pouring cash into Blagojevich's campaign fund, including tens of thousands of dollars out of his own pocket."

    Some rumbling about impeachment began in the General Assembly, but Blagojevich had a firewall in State Senate President Emil Jones, his seemingly only stalwart ally.

    Today's charges against Blagojevich do not include those that are almost certainly still to come from the Board Games investigation. Instead, federal authorities were essentially forced to move earlier than expected on the governor having come into evidence in just the last month that Blagojevich allegedly was trying to profit from the appointment of a replacement to Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat, as well as other schemes allegedly gleaned from wiretaps.

    Either way, though, the A in Public Official A now stands for arrested.