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Thursday, Nov. 3, 2005 04:08 pm

Rain on his parade

Another subpeona takes the glow off of Blagojevich’s All Kids success

Federal investigators didn’t make it easy for Gov. Rod Blagojevich last week. On his big day, when he tried to turn around his political fortunes with All Kids, a major new public-health policy initiative formally unveiled in front of a joint session of the General Assembly with most of the state’s media in attendance, the feds dropped yet another subpoena.
This time, it was the Illinois Department of Transportation’s turn. Prosecutors demanded hiring records going back three years. The Chicago Tribune disclosed the day before the governor’s speech that the feds had widened their probe of the Department of Children and Family Services with a fresh subpoena of hiring records and that federal prosecutors had sent an unusual letter claiming that “the government is conducting a grand jury investigation regarding allegations of criminal wrongdoing of Victor Roberson, Robin Staggers and Joe Cini in relation to public corruption.”
Cini, the governor’s patronage chief, came out of Chicago Ald. Dick Mell’s ward organization. Cini is highly regarded by many insiders but despised by at least some current and former state-agency personnel directors for allegedly pressuring them on questionable hiring. Roberson is one of Cini’s top aides. Staggers is a patronage person assigned to DCFS. Staggers and two of her aides have reportedly been placed on administrative leave. The disclosure of that federal letter went off like a bomb at the statehouse. Though falling short of being an actual “target letter” — when the government informs someone that he or she is the target of an investigation — it was close enough for many. The feds rarely tip their hand, but for whatever reason they have seemed unusually willing to show their cards when it comes to this governor. It wasn’t that long ago, remember, that the feds did everything but name Blagojevich and his two top fundraisers, Chris Kelly and Tony Rezko, in negotiated guilty pleas related to a corruption investigation of the teachers’ pension fund. The IDOT subpoena demanded hiring records dating back to several months before the governor took office, as did the DCFS subpoena. It’s possible that investigators are attempting to compare patronage procedures between the Blagojevich and George Ryan administrations. By most accounts, Blagojevich delivered one of the best speeches of his career last week, omitting his often inane jokes and focusing on the task at hand, promoting himself as a champion of health-care rights for all. But his message was stepped on by the feds, showing once again how difficult it will be to right his upside-down poll numbers. The governor appears to be hoping that All Kids, which would subsidize health care for thousands of middle-class children who are now going without, will persuade voters to give him another look. After almost a solid year of unremitting bad publicity and resulting low poll numbers, the governor needs to wave something big and flashy in front of voters’ eyes to make them think that maybe he’s not so bad after all — or is, at least, worthy of reconsideration. Then again, a poll conducted by the Tribune earlier this month found that just 22 percent of voters said that the governor had lived up to his promise to clean up government, and 57 percent of independents believed Blagojevich “had not fulfilled his commitment to clean up corruption and cronyism.”
A disturbingly large 52 percent of independent voters said that Blagojevich was “motivated by personal interests,” and 44 percent of all voters agreed. Subsequent media disclosures that 10 percent of Gov. and Mrs. Blagojevich’s total gross household income last year came from political insider Tony Rezko will probably only reinforce that belief. Pushing programs such as All Kids may indeed help the governor make some progress with voters. But the people I’ve talked to on both sides of the aisle who have analyzed polling data and monitored focus groups universally agree that voters feel betrayed by a self-described reformer who doesn’t reform. So even if the governor gets a second look, he will eventually have to begin addressing this very real problem. Insiders say that the governor is reluctant to dump or even distance himself from the politically connected insiders who helped get him elected and who have since raised mountains of cash for his campaign fund and, in Rezko’s case, even helped pad his family’s personal bank account. Until he makes a complete break with those people, it will be impossible to start convincing voters that this governor is clean.
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