Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Right Way to Sell a Senate Seat

Once again, a politician is taking flac for doing the right thing. Just two months ago, VP candidate Sarah Palin drew unfair criticism for accepting a complimentary makeover. Now Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has been arrested by FBI agents, not because his name is hard to spell, but instead for conduct inaccurately alleged by an Elliott Ness soundalike to be “a political corruption crime spree.” Blagojevich himself might benefit from a new haircut, and no doubt will receive a complimentary wardrobe if he ends up in prison for his purported misconduct, but leave that aside.

Instead, take a look at what the Gov is alleged to have done, and it will be easy to see why there’s less than meets the flinty eyes of a humorless prosecutor. We’ll save the main event for last, since the headliner, so to speak, always appears after the opening acts. The recitation here is based on a press release helpfully prepared by the U.S. Attorney’s office, which in turn is based on a short criminal complaint and a long FBI affidavit. The latter, at 76 pages, is almost a novella, and I intend to actively pursue the movie rights. Failing that, I may develop a series for cell phone streaming, a natural medium, since much of the affidavit is based on wiretaps anyway.

But I digress. The chief allegations against the Governor are as follows:

Tollway Project. Blagojevich allegedly sought political contributions totaling $500,000 from a highway contractor, in return for committing additional state money to a tollway project. That can scarcely be illegal—after all, it’s called a “tollway.” Highway contractors should pay tolls just like the rest of us. If anything, the Governor should have required the contractor’s execs to wear toll tags (or EZ Pass, whatever they’re called in Illinois) each time they visited the statehouse, to automate the collection of contributions and shorten lines at the back room doors. Blame the Gov for inefficiency, yes, but don’t charge him with some trumped-up offense.

Children's Memorial Hospital. The Governor is accused of seeking a $50,000 contribution from the CEO of Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago and, when the contribution was not forthcoming, discussing with “Deputy Governor A” (in the quant parlance of the affidavit) the feasibility of rescinding the funding. Probably the most unsettling thing here is the possibility that there might be a Deputy Governor B, i.e., that the state of Illinois may have more than one deputy governor. Why a panoply of such officials would be needed is unknown, and bespeaks further inefficiency.

Moving on, note that the contribution allegedly requested was $50,000. The highway contractor, in contrast, was squeezed for ten times as much. Clearly the governor is showing solicitude for children here. As for why they should pay at all, wake up bucko: in the real world, stuff costs. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, even if it’s hospital food. The sooner kids learn that, the better. Blago was simply providing a teachable moment for children too ill to attend school.

By the way, although Blago sounds like a type of asphalt used by highway contractors—which I suppose in a sense it is (see “Tollway Project,” above)—it’s actually the Governor’s nickname, and please don’t confuse it with “blogger,” which is what I am. I’m not the governor of anything, and I left Chicago at age 6, with my morals more or less intact.

Casinos and Horses. This one is more Vegas than Hyde Park: the Gov allegedly sought a contribution in exchange for which he would sign into law a statute that funnels a percentage of casino revenue to the horse racing industry. Who knew that Illinois had either of these industries? Indeed, the Chicago of yore was filled with slaughterhouses—for cattle, I suspect, rather than horses, but any equine in the vicinity would probably have raced out of the city, not around a track. Also a mystery is why casinos should be paying, rather than playing, the ponies. In any case, it’s hard to see how the Governor’s shakedown could have hurt, since both casinos and horse racing were once so thoroughly mobbed up that his actions were more anachronistic than criminal.

Chicago Tribune. Rod (may I call him that?) allegedly threatened to withhold state financial assistance to the Chicago Tribune’s parent company unless the Trib fired editorial board members who editorialized for his impeachment. The assistance in question would have helped the parent company sell the Cubs and Wrigley Field. So what? Criminalizing this conduct is wrong for so many reasons I scarcely know where to start. First of all, why should the state help a company that hasn’t had the good sense to sell stadium naming rights to a company with a more sexy product than chewing gum? There’s probably all too much gum underfoot and under the seats at the stadium anyway. Yuck.

Second, there’s the possibility that the buyer for the Cubbies would have turned out to be the hot-headed Mark Cuban. Ignore the possibility that he might erroneously hire basketball players for the Cubs, which would be a woeful mistake, save for their greater ability to catch fly balls. The real question is, who wants his courtside demeanor imported to another city? Then there’s the matter of Cuban’s recent insider trading indictment. And finally, the possibility that he might not only be named Cuban, but actually be one, in which case a sale to him would violate the embargo so effectively maintained against that island nation.

Third, look at the newspaper’s conduct—it’s highly culpable. How dare they criticize an elected official? It’s baffling that a newspaper, in these Bushian days, could think it had any right to be other than a lapdog. Bad enough that prosecutors see fit to criticize public servants. Do newspapers really have to mix in as well?

Finally, look at Tribune Company itself. Subjected by its still-new overlord, Sam Zell, to a crushing debt load, it was foreseeable that the company would file bankruptcy, as indeed it has. At this rate, there’s a good chance the editors will be fired anyway, along with reporters, copy editors, and other ink-stained wretches who do little that newspaper ad salesmen couldn’t do in their now copious downtime. Tossing out these deadweight personnel, burdened as they are with an inordinate respect for the news, is certainly the operating approach taken by another Tribune property, the LA Times, which sheds editors, publishers, reporters and news sections on an almost monthly basis. Since the Trib editors might well have been fired anyway, the Governor’s little nudge falls under the category of no harm, no foul.

Senate Seat. Finally we come to the main event: Blago allegedly tried to sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama, whose reasons for resigning remain unclear. While Obama seems likely to fade into obscurity as a result of abandoning a perfectly fine office in the Capitol, Blagojevich’s attempt to amass capital—remember, it’s –al for everything but the building—has brought him publicity of the sort that the former Senator can only dream of (or nightmare of, if there were such a verb, and why isn’t there?).

Now, the Governor sought many buyers for the Senate seat, the affidavit alleges. For instance, Obama and his posse apparently had a candidate in mind, but, said the Governor, “they’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation.” A perfectly valid objection. As the Governor said, “I've got this thing”—meaning the Senate seat—“and it's fucking golden, and, uh, uh, I'm just not giving it up for fuckin’ nothing. I'm not gonna do it.” Just so. A Senate seat is indeed golden, if a little shopworn, in light of Illinois’ almost 200 years of statehood. As the Governor said, it’s “a fucking valuable thing, you just don’t give it away for nothing.” Not in Illinois you don’t, no siree Bob. Why cough up a federal bauble for nothing more than a Hallmark “Thank You” card with a DC postmark?

The Governor allegedly went on to say of the seat, “And, and I can always use it”—who couldn’t, after all?—and then to add, damningly “I can parachute me there.” Now, this last is disturbing. That a state’s top elected official could say such thing is unfortunate—to use “me” when “myself” is called for! But this, of course, should have earned him an arrest by the grammar police, not the FBI.

We learn also of Blagojevich’s motivations for possibly parachuting himself through DC’s restricted airspace and into the Senate seat. One was frustration at being “stuck” as governor. Who can blame him for that? State capitals are often cesspools of corruption, and Blagojevich would scarcely want to find himself tarred with that black brush. He allegedly expressed a half-dozen or so other reasons, including a desire to avoid impeachment by the Illinois legislature. The desire to stay one step ahead of the law in such fashion is logical and, at the end of the day, if you’re going to get expelled from office, better that it be by the U.S. Senate itself, rather than some downstate, down-market legislature.

Yet another potential transaction involving the Senate seat was a complicated affair that entailed a more or less do-nothing job for the Governor at the Service Employees International Union. Here again, we must invoke the principle of no harm, no foul and the defense of anachronism: since unions are and/or were so enamored of feather bedding, what’s another quasi-job amongst friends?

It goes on and on. One suitor for the Senate seat sent “[a]n emissary,” in the Governor’s words, not to be confused with an “emirate.” The latter would have implied a king’s ransom, or a king’s payoff more precisely, whereas all Blagojevich wanted was $250,000-$300,000 per year.

As I read on, absorbing the details of the alleged sale of the Senate seat, something rankled. All of a sudden it came to me: Blago’s conduct, in this one instance, was indeed criminal. Attempting to sell the Senate seat in this fashion was unlawful. A quick Google search revealed why: The sale violated an Illinois statute, 30 ILCS 605/7(b)(1), governing “[d]isposition of other transferable [state] property by sale”:

[T]he property [shall] be advertised for sale to the highest responsible bidder, stating time, place, and terms of such sale at least 7 days prior to the time of sale and at least once in a newspaper having a general circulation in the county where the property is to be sold.

The Governor’s approach to the transaction failed to comply with two key elements: the sale—i.e., of the Senate seat—was not advertised (although word seems to have gotten around) and there was apparently no attempt to ensure that the bidders were responsible. On the other hand, he presumably did attempt to maximize the bids, and his failure to advertise in a newspaper as described can be excused due to the Trib’s unconscionable conduct described above.

So there’s the indictable offense. It’s no comfort to the U.S. Attorney, because the quoted statute is a state law, not a federal one. Sounds like a job for the Cook County State's Attorney. Unfortunately, the federal court doesn’t seem to see it that way. The Governor was arraigned Tuesday and, in the ultimate insult, the man accused of attempting to sell a Senate seat for hundreds of thousands of dollars was released on a mere $4,500 bail. Is the value of a governor just 1% of that of a senator? So it seems. No wonder Blago wanted out of that job, one way or another.