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Blagojevich indictment alleges new heights of corruption in Illinois
CHICAGO -- Rod Blagojevich's schemes and corruption stretch back beyond trying to sell a Senate seat, beyond handing out jobs to political donors and even beyond his first day in the Illinois governor's office, federal prosecutors say.
While he campaigned on a promise to clean up after the scandals of the previous governor, Blagojevich and a handful of political pals already were planning to line their pockets and split the money after Blagojevich left office, according to a 19-count indictment.
If true, the allegations show Blagojevich blew past the actions that put ex-governor George Ryan in prison and took corruption to new levels in Illinois.
Ryan pressured state employees to contribute $50 and $100 to his campaigns, while Blagojevich demanded $50,000 and $100,000 from companies simply wanting a chance to do business with the state, according to the indictment.
Ryan steered government money to friends who gave him gifts and vacations. Blagojevich tried to block money for sick children and students unless he got big political contributions, the indictment says.
"If the allegations are true, it is the epitome of hypocrisy. It's very sad," said Brad McMillan, a member of the Illinois Reform Commission appointed by the state's new governor.
"He ran on a platform to clean up Illinois government, and at the time he's making those speeches, he's engaging in the same kind of unethical behavior he was condemning," said McMillan, head of Bradley University's Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service.
Blagojevich, 52, was arrested in December on a host of charges, including the allegation he schemed to auction off the appointment to Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat. He was impeached and booted out of office in January, a first in the long history of Illinois corruption.
By one count, Illinois has seen 1,000 public-corruption convictions since 1970. Five former Illinois governors have been prosecuted during the past 44 years.
Blagojevich, a Chicago Democrat, flatly denies the allegations, insisting he always behaved ethically and did his best to fight government corruption.
"I am innocent. I now will fight in the courts to clear my name," Blagojevich said in a statement Thursday after prosecutors released the indictment that named him, his brother and four other aides and political allies.
But federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald says he has Blagojevich on tape discussing the criminal activity in secretly recorded telephone conversations.
The 75-page indictment outlines sharp differences between the Ryan and Blagojevich cases. In trying Ryan, prosecutors struggled to present jurors with examples of cash payoffs directly to the Republican governor. Such allegations are all over Blagojevich's case.
According to the indictment, Blagojevich and his former chief of staff, Alonzo Monk, agreed to hand huge power to fixer Tony Rezko to name members of powerful boards and commissions. Rezko has been convicted of using that power as part of a scheme to raise $7 million in kickbacks from companies seeking state business.
In return, Rezko provided Blagojevich's wife, Patti, with $54,396 in real estate commissions she did nothing to earn, according to the indictment. It says Rezko also gave her a $12,000-a-month job, "purportedly for real estate brokerage services."
Blagojevich also allegedly ordered co-defendant John Harris, another Blagojevich chief of staff, to shut off state business for two financial institutions that did not respond satisfactorily to his demands for a well-paying job for his wife.
"My first reaction when I read the Ryan indictment was, where's the beef?" said DePaul University law Professor Leonard Cavise. "There wasn't much to show Ryan took money and put it in his pocket. In the Blagojevich indictment it's all over the place. This isn't the kind of prosecution where you have to connect the dots."
In framing the Blagojevich indictment, prosecutors engaged in a technical maneuver that effectively sent the case to a judge known for his skill in keeping order in the courtroom and preventing trials from turning into circuses.
That could be important, given Blagojevich's behavior since his initial arrest in December.
He appeared on nearly every talk show and news program in the country to proclaim his innocence and declare himself the victim of a conspiracy by his political enemies. He signed a book deal and hosted a Chicago talk-radio show. He held a news conference with sick people and claimed he was being persecuted because he had championed health care programs to help them.
His lead attorney dropped the case, saying Blagojevich wouldn't even listen to his advice.
Some of the action in Ryan's trial took place outside the courtroom. Ryan exploded on television against one of the witnesses -- former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm -- and his wife went on TV in what prosecutors saw as a play for sympathy. Ryan also spotlighted his stand against the death penalty.
Patrick M. Collins, who headed the government team that sent Ryan to prison, urges the current team of prosecutors not to let Blagojevich distract them with similar tactics.
"I'll give the prosecutors the same advice I got," Collins said. "Keep your eyes on the prize and remember that the important part is in the courtroom."
New Gov. Pat Quinn and Illinois lawmakers are studying ways to clean up the state's "culture of corruption," but the Blagojevich allegations highlight the difficulty of stopping someone bent on misconduct.
Blagojevich didn't stumble into a gray area or cut some corners after years in office, according to the indictment -- he set out from day one to abuse his authority.
Doug Alexander, who owns a book store in Quincy, said he doubts anything will change in Illinois until voters make it clear they demand honest government.
"I don't think it's something you can legislate," Alexander said. "I think its something that has to come from the people themselves."
Associated Press Writer Christopher Wills reported from Springfield. Writer David Mercer contributed to this report from Champaign.