Democratic candidate for Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker discussed various political appointments with now-incarcerated Gov. Rod Blagojevich in a series of phone calls obtained by the Chicago Tribune.
The Tribune released audio recordings of two calls Wednesday in which Pritzker appears to suggest to Blagojevich that he would be a good candidate for Illinois state treasurer.
Pritzker said in a call on Nov. 6, 2008, two days after the election of President Barack Obama, that he heard then-treasurer Alexi Giannoulias was rumored to be up for an appointment in Obama’s administration, according to the Tribune.
In turn, Blagojevich reportedly said it was “hard to believe” and that he heard House Speaker Michael Madigan was pushing for a position in the administration to “clear the field” for his daughter, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
When Pritzker pressed about Giannoulias’ potential departure, the Tribune’s recording indicates that Blagojevich responded "Ooh, interesting. Let's think about that. You interested in that?"
“Yeah, that’s the one I would want,” Pritzker can be heard saying.
Blagojevich then appears to raise the idea of appointing Pritzker to the Senate seat vacated by Obama, the seat Blagojevich was later convicted of attempting to sell, among several other federal corruption charges for which he is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence.
Pritzker pivots back to the treasurer post, according to the Tribune, suggesting that he might be able to ask executives at the Chicago Board Options Exchange and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to support the idea of appointing Pritzker.
“Look, even if none of those things makes sense for you, I’d love to help you in any way I can,” Pritzker then offers, the Tribune reports. “Some of the players I know… I would be happy to act as a little bit as an intermediary,” he added. “So, I just offer myself and my service to you.”
Later in that same call, the Tribune reports that Blagojevich brought up Obama’s choice for the Senate seat – his friend and later White House adviser Valerie Jarrett.
“What do you do if you’re me?” Blagojevich reportedly asked. “This f***king Obama ran on my record, OK? He said he brought health care to kids.”
“The only reason to do it is if he’ll appoint you to something,” Pritzker is heard saying in response, according to the Tribune.
Blagojevich then transitions to potentially engineering a situation in which he could appoint Pritzker to be Illinois Attorney General, the Tribune reports.
“What if, and I’m telling ya this could happen, because I know how Madigan is, he says, ‘I’ll give ya health care, I’ll give ya a capital bill, OK. We’ll work with you to balance the budget the way you want to do it and I’ll raise taxes on people… and you make Lisa the senator, OK?” Blagojevich said, adding that then there’s “an AG that I appoint” before asking Pritzker if he’s a lawyer.
“Ooh, that’s interesting,” Pritzker says, before the Tribune reports that he told Blagojevich that “the treasurer thing actually seems totally logical to me and not harmful to you.”
“My interest in holding public office is, you know, always large,” Pritzker added.
Pritzker, a billionaire member of the family best known for owning the Hyatt Hotels chain, has long been a powerful Democratic fundraiser and was deeply involved in Hillary Clinton’s 2008 and 2016 presidential campaigns. He also unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1998, losing the 9th district to then-state Rep. Jan Schakowsky.
The 52-year-old venture capitalist has an estimated net worth of $3.4 billion, and has contributed to dozens of candidates, from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, as well as both Speaker and Attorney General Madigan and Blagojevich himself.
His campaign called the Tribune’s story “a continuation of attacks” in a statement Wednesday.
"If one listens to the actual calls released in the story there was nothing untoward about JB’s conversations with the Governor," a campaign spokeswoman said. "Throughout JB’s life he’s had an interest in serving the people of Illinois and that’s exactly what he expressed when discussing a potential opening in the Treasurer’s office. In fact, when the Governor brings up whether JB would be interested in being appointed to the Senate, on multiple occasions JB expresses he is not and moves away from the type of conversation that landed Rod Blagojevich in prison.”
"This is just a continuation of attacks made by Bruce Rauner and Republicans and it’s no coincidence that it was published by the Chicago Tribune on the last day of another session where Governor Rauner has failed to pass a budget,” the statement ended.
Pritzker’s ties to Blagojevich previously surfaced in December, when the Illinois Republican Party launched robocalls featuring yet another Blagojevich recording from 2008.
“I bet you J.B. can raise me money like that,” Blagojevich said in a call with aide Doug Scofield. “If I can get J.B. to do something like that, is it worth giving him the Senate seat? Incidentally, he asked me for it. Don’t repeat that."
However, that robocall didn’t include the portion of the conversation where Blagojevich agrees with Scofield that "that's a hard one to do."
"Yeah, you're darn right that's hard," Blagojevich said on the tape. "But you have an organization that, you know, you go out and advocate and, and he'll help fund it by getting some of his billionaire friends to, to invest in it."
In another recording released Wednesday by the Tribune, Blagojevich and Pritzker once again discussed the treasurer position on Nov. 14, a week after their previous conversation.
"I've got a lot of reasons why it makes sense. The problem for you would be the same problem with the Senate really," Pritzker said, according to the Tribune. "I've given you contributions."
"Total nonissue," Blagojevich reportedly responded. "First of all, you give money to everybody, like Lisa Madigan, OK?"
"Which, incidentally, if you can do for me what you did for her, before the end of the year. Can you think about that?" Blagojevich continued, appearing to solicit a donation similar to the two $25,000 contributions Pritzker made to Madigan in 2007 and 2008.
"I can't, I mean, not while everything's up in the air, but I hear ya," Pritzker said in the Tribune’s recording, obtained by federal agents as the then-governor was under investigation. "I hear ya and, and and … But anyway …"
Blagojevich then cut him off to suggest that “there's some other people who can help us that you know,” adding that Pritzker shouldn’t “feel skittish about that.”
"Yeah," Pritzker can be heard saying in response. "I don't think we should even talk about it but I understand what you're saying."
According to the Tribune, another call between the two occurred on Dec. 3, in which Pritzker officially took his name out of the running for the Senate seat appointment.
Six days later, Blagojevich would be arrested at his Northwest Side home.