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When Burris Wanted to Get to Blagojevich, He Called Lon Monk

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So Roland Burris on Friday told members of the House committee investigating the impeachment of Governor Blagojevich that he had called Alonzo ("Lon") Monk ("Lobbyist 1" in the federal criminal complaint against Blago). According to Burris, he called Monk, Blago's former chief of staff whose cell phone was tapped by the feds, to ask if Monk had any excess lobbying business to throw the way of Burris's lobbying firm, Burris & Lebed. Burris also put the bug, so to speak, in Monk's ear that Burris (whose tombstone advertises him as a "Trail Blazer") was interested in having Blago consider him as Barack Obama's replacement in the Senate.

Burris said that he made the call to lobbyist Monk in July or September; if his memory is accurate, it probably means that the call preceded the tap and so would not have been recorded.

Burris's supporters argue that Monk was off the state payroll at the time. Monk left Blago's employ after the '06 election to launch his lobbying business and, Burris says, Monk never threw any lobbying business Burris's way. There is nothing untoward about Burris making that call, his supporters add--it was just business coupled with political ambition. Burris would surely like Democratic leaders to believe that when Monk exited the governor's staff, their relationship ended. That is almost certainly not true.

Two years younger than Blago and a native of southern California (grew up in Rodondo Beach), Monk has been a friend of Blago's since their second year of law school at Pepperdine in Malibu in the early 1980s--a bond strengthened when they both joined a Pepperdine group that studied for a semester in London and lived at the same hotel. When I interviewed them in 2003, they both remembered leaving their rooms at 2 a.m. to get to Piccadilly Circus by three to see a Tommy Hearns/Sugar Ray Leonard fight live from Las Vegas.

They roomed together in law school and stayed closely in touch after graduation--Monk was a groomsman at Blago's wedding--and later Blago, then a U.S. Congressman, persuaded Monk to give up his business as a sports agent--he represented figure skater Nancy Kerrigan--to work as Blago's legal counsel in Washington, then to run his campaign for governor in 2002, to serve as his chief of staff, and, finally, to run his reelection campaign in 2006.

Monk had the office next to Blago's in the Thompson Center and ran with him many mornings. Ald. Dick Mell, Blago's father-in-law, told me when I interviewed him in 2003, before the two became estranged, that Monk was Blago's "closest" friend.

Mell also became close to Monk, at least professionally. Mell's daughter Patti told me back then, before she and Mell also became estranged, that job seekers used her father as the conduit to the governor. "I kind of feel bad for my dad because people come to him trying to get to Rod." She said that it became so frequent and so intrusive that "we had to work out a system on it." They decided, she said, that Mell and Lon Monk would meet every week and deal with these requests. Monk told me that he and Mell met for breakfast every two weeks, often at the East Bank Club. Monk says that Mell was feeling "frustrated" and taking the heat from his constituents because the son-in-law was not making the transition to placing Democrats in all jobs as quickly as people in the party would like.

"Mell has a lot of people who expected Rod or any Democratic governor to come in and basically turn on the lights and all the sudden the state was going to become very Democratic. ... Because of all the people envisioning Ald. Mell with all this influence with Rod, he comes under a lot of pressure to try to make that happen. ... Rod wants to make sure that the right people get in the right spots. ... That ... frustrates Mell because he has to deal with that on a day-to-day basis with his constituency. ... And people don't believe this, but Rod makes the decision. He's setting the agenda. Mell's far more a father-in-law than he is a political operative."

(Monk recalls Blago, as a law student, calling himself not a democratic, but "a progressive conservative.")

Monk remembered Blago the law student as an avid recreational reader (especially books on Teddy Roosevelt). Blago skipped class one morning, explaining to Monk that he was "engrossed with reading George Trevelyan's History of England (1926). Blago spent "a lot of time by himself," Monk explained, "running, reading, weight lifting."

Rod didn't have a "passion" for law, says Monk. He would not volunteer in class, but when called on "he was usually able to wing it pretty well. ... Coupled with an engaging personality, he got by." For most people, Monk says, law school was "all consuming." Not for Rod: "Law school was not going to control Rod's life; he was going to control law school."

Once Monk went to work for Gov. Blago in Chicago, he found himself to be the only running partner the governor would accept. They ran many mornings from Blago's house at 2934 W. Sunnyside to Wrigley field and back--about seven miles. Monk says they ran fast--clocking eight to eight-and-one-half-minute miles.

Monk also told me back then that the relationship between Blago and Mike Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House, is "very good right now. ... I think he enjoys Rod's company"--this at a time when Madigan had recently dropped the bomb about unnamed "indiscretions" in Rod's past.

During our interview in Monk's Thompson Center office, he mentioned that he communicates mostly by cell phone, that he doesn't use email or a Blackberry.

Hearing or reading the transcripts of those cell phone conversations should be fascinating. One thing I think they will show is that Rod Blagojevich and Lon Monk were close before he left Blago's employ-- and after.