Huffpost Chicago

Blagojevich Charges: 'Just Politics'?

Posted: Updated:

WASHINGTON — Politicians make deals every day. They do favors and ask them in return. They kowtow to campaign contributors.

It may be unsavory, but it's often perfectly legal.

The prosecutors who arrested Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich say his conduct went far beyond politics-as-usual into a shocking pattern of corruption. But where's the line?

There's a vast gray area in which political dealmaking flourishes.

President-elect Barack Obama acknowledged as much Thursday, speaking of wheelers and dealers who ask "what's in it for me?"

The charges against Blagojevich represent "the far end of the spectrum of that business mentality of politics," Obama said. "But there are more subtle examples of it, right, that are within the lines of legality but still don't fulfill the spirit of service."

Joseph diGenova, a former prosecutor now in private practice, said political corruption can be a bit like obscenity _ hard to describe, but "you know it when you see it."

He said it's especially hard to prove criminal behavior involving campaign contributions, as opposed to personal enrichment.

"It's not like, 'Gimme $50,000 in a black bag and I'll give you the nomination,'" diGenova said.

"People give campaign contributions and expect things in exchange," he said. "It's all perfectly legal."

So it's a given that politicians sometimes indulge in a form of give-and-take.

"Deals are made all the time in politics," said Daniel Lowenstein, a professor at UCLA Law School. "Our system couldn't operate without it."

Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, announcing the criminal complaint against Blagojevich, said he wasn't "trying to criminalize people making political horse trades on policies or that sort of thing. But it is criminal when people are doing it for their personal enrichment."

The line is crossed, diGenova said, when an official act is paid for with money or something else of value. Some of the proposed dealmaking discussed by Blagojevich in his taped conversations might make people gasp, he said, but isn't necessarily criminal.

Some others agree.

"A lot of these issues do fall into a gray area, where it may be hard to distinguish between politics as usual, practices that go on in statehouses all over the country, and criminal conduct," said defense attorney Ross Garber, who was counsel to Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland during an FBI investigation. "There's an ambiguous area between this political horse trading and improper conduct."

Rowland pleaded guilty to a federal corruption charge and served 10 months in prison. He admitted trading access to his office for more than $100,000 in vacations, charter airline trips and home repairs.

Taking money in exchange for official government action is clearly illegal. But it may be just savvy politics when a governor names his political rival a state judge so she won't oppose him next election.

What about when Hillary Rodham Clinton endorses Barack Obama, who helps pay off her campaign debt and then names her secretary of state? No allegations of a crime there.

The Blagojevich case offers a lot to look at.

"I want to make money," Blagojevich said in a taped conversation, according to prosecutors.

If it's proven that Blagojevich tried to sell a Senate seat for personal gain, that's clearly illegal.

But offering to appoint Obama's favored candidate to the seat in exchange for a Cabinet position sounds more like the kind of deal that happens all the time.

"When a governor says that a political appointment is valuable, well, that's true," Garber said. "A political appointment is valuable. But in this case, prosecutors say the governor was talking about monetary value and that's the problem."

In at least one of the allegations, prosecutors say the governor and aide John Harris obtained financial gain for Blagojevich, his family and his campaign in exchange for appointments to state boards and access to state contracts.

Eric Dezenhall, a crisis management specialist who advises corporations and high-profile people who get in hot water, said the problem with Blagojevich, based upon initial reports, is that "his behavior appears to be a nakedly self-aggrandizing cash proposition."

"Both in the courts and in the media, the crux of his defense must be differentiating between garden-variety quid pro quo and personal piggery," Dezenhall said. "People understand politicians being politicians; they don't understand politicians mugging old ladies for a loaf of marble rye."

Or, as in Blagojevich's case, allegedly threatening to withhold government money for a children's hospital because its CEO hadn't coughed up enough campaign contributions.

Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo said Blagojevich's situation is more a case of "politics as absurd" than politics as usual.

"Normally, there is subtlety in these attempts at self-serving, but here there was no subtlety," he said. "The fact that it was attended by colorful, disgusting language made it even more insulting to the public."

Stripping away all of that drama, Cuomo said, "the basic question is one that's omnipresent. It's the quid pro quo situation," suggesting an exchange of this for that.

Prosecutors called Blagojevich's conduct "appalling," a characterization that drew little argument. Next comes the challenge of proving it illegal.

___

Associated Press Writer Matt Apuzzo contributed to this story.