CHICAGO — A former chief of staff to Rod Blagojevich pleaded guilty Wednesday to taking part in a scheme to use President Barack Obama's Senate seat as leverage to get the then-governor into a high-paying job.
John Harris, 47, also promised that he would be a government witness if _ as expected _ Blagojevich goes to trial on federal racketeering conspiracy charges.
"I have never met a person who is going to be a better witness than John Harris is going to be," defense attorney Terry Ekl told reporters.
Harris became the first of four Blagojevich co-defendants to plead guilty and promise to testify for the government. Another former chief of staff to the governor, Alonzo Monk, is cooperating and has served notice that he intends to plead guilty later this month.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, Randall Samborn, declined to comment. Harris also left the courthouse without commenting.
In his signed plea agreement, Harris said he had numerous discussions with Blagojevich beginning in October 2008 about the possibility that Obama would be elected president and how the governor would then be able to fill his Senate seat.
"Throughout the course of those discussions, Blagojevich made it clear to defendant that Blagojevich was not focused on what was in the best interest of the people of the state of Illinois but instead was focused in large part on what Blagojevich could get personally in exchange for the Senate appointment," the 26-page plea agreement said.
After a Nov. 6 meeting with an official of the Service Employees International Union, Blagojevich allegedly told Harris and others that he had asked to be appointed secretary of Health and Human Service in the Obama administration in exchange for the Senate seat. The idea was that the union would push Obama to choose him.
Under that plan, the seat would go to Valerie Jarrett, an Obama family friend who is now a White House adviser. Jarrett was not mentioned by name in the document but has been widely identified as Senate Candidate B. She has not been accused of any wrongdoing; neither have any Service Employees officials.
About the same time, Blagojevich expressed to aides an interest in being appointed to an ambassadorship by Obama or a high-paying foundation job, according to the plea agreement.
The document said an aide asked Blagojevich if he wanted the high-paying job in 2010 when his term as governor was up or immediately, and he said "he wanted the position now and wanted to know how much the position paid."
When told the range was $200,000 to $300,000 per year, Blagojevich seemed disappointed and allegedly said something to the effect of: "Oh, is that all?"
Harris acknowledged that the next day he suggested that Blagojevich could become the national coordinator of "Change to Win," a union-sponsored group.
Under that plan, Jarrett was to get the Senate seat and Blagojevich would get the job: Obama would get his choice for senator, and the union would score points with the newly elected president. But Harris warned Blagojevich that it would not be politically acceptable for him to step down as governor to take the job.
"In response, Blagojevich suggested the possibility of having his wife take a position now and then Blagojevich could take a national position later," the plea agreement said. "Defendant told him that this was not a good idea."
Blagojevich also allegedly expressed disappointment when he was told that the salary for the position would not top the $125,000 to $150,000 paid to the Service Employees official annually.
Jarrett accepted the White House position on Nov. 11. Blagojevich then asked Harris about the possibility of Obama setting up a nonprofit group that he could head in exchange for the Senate appointment, according to the document.
Harris said Blagojevich urged him to press then-U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., about the idea. Harris said he never made the call because he believed it would be an illegal swap.
Emanuel, who has been accused of no wrongdoing, was named only as U.S. Congressman A in the document but was identified by a person close to the case who spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter is confidential.
With Jarrett out of the picture, Harris said, Blagojevich then directed him to meet with a politician identified only as Senate Candidate D and discuss an exchange of all of Candidate D's remaining campaign funds in exchange for the Senate seat. Harris said he met with Candidate D but did not offer the trade. The same person close to the case identified Candidate D as former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago.
Harris said Blagojevich also discussed the possibility of appointing a Senate Candidate A, who had offered through a third party to raise $1.5 million in campaign funds. The person close to the case said Candidate A was U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill.
Harris said Blagojevich also considered appointing himself.