Interestingly, the unfolding scandal around the arrest of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich has received zero coverage over here in Europe. But the implications of this huge political development could profoundly affect the Obama presidency even before he's taken office, and that would likely be of great interest to Europeans. To me the scandal is fascinating, bringing back memories of my days as a reporter in Chicago covering the truly staggering level of corruption in that area of the US.
The fact that a governor of Illinois is corrupt isn't what's surprising about this development, after all Blago's (that's his nickname in Illinois) two predecessors were also arrested for corruption. It's the sheer audacity of his crimes that's so staggering. Among a long list of corruption charges, one of them is that he was trying to sell Barack Obama's senate seat. Obama was previously a senator for Illinois before he won the presidency, and when a senator departs it is the governor of that state who appoints the new senator. Blagojevich is a Democrat, so the Democratic Party didn't have to worry about losing that seat. But the governor can appoint anyone he wants, and apparently he was planning to sell the seat to interesting parties.
The language he's using in the wiretaps is straight out of the 1950's, it's astonishing any politician could be so stupid in this day and age. Not only does he explicitly say he's planning to sell Obama's senate seat, he uses language so mafioso-like it sounds like it's coming out of Tamany Hall. He even litterally says that someone interested in the seat was willing to "pay to play" at one point in the tapes.
But here's where it gets tricky for the president-elect. Blago is on tape as saying he had had already engaged in preliminary talks with interested parties, particularly with one who was willing to pay $500,000, referred to in the transcripts as only "senate candidate number five." Now everyone is speculating - who is candidate number five? Is it someone with ties to Barack Obama?
Obama clearly saw this coming. During the campaign he was diligent about staying far away from Blago. Blago was the only Democratic governor who was not invited to speak at the Democratic Convention. And it is clear he had nothing to do with the selection of his successor. Blago is even on tape complaining that Obama wasn't cooperating with his efforts to sell the seat, calling Obama a not-so-nice expletive. However some of the people who were under consideration for the appointment are very close to Obama, and if any of them turn out to be "candidate number five" this could turn into a big problem for the president-elect.
One possibility is US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., the son of the famous civil rights leader. He and Obama are quite close. I remember interviewing Jackson back in 2004, when he was downright effusive about Obama's political future even back then. Jackson has told reporters that he is not a target of the investigation, but anonymous federal law enforcement sources have told ABC's Brian Ross that Jackson is number five. The truth may come in a matter of days, and the result could be that Obama enters office with a severe bruise to the halo around his head.