Wednesday, July 12, 2006 04:28 pm
The things to come
The most important person in the governors race: Peter Fitzgerald
“There is so much more coming it is breathtaking,” an almost always reliable source said recently when asked about the recent flood of news stories about alleged corruption within Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration. That source wasn’t the only one making this prediction. Plenty of others are saying that the Chicago Tribune is sitting on a large pile of explosives. Unlike 1998, when the Tribune mostly sat by while other media outlets ran stories about George Ryan’s alleged corruption, the paper is clearly trying to stay out front on this Blagojevich thing. As you may have seen, the Trib published several more stories over the long July 4 holiday weekend and then published follow-ups for days. The Associated Press also seems eager to become the outlet of record for stories on state corruption. The AP may have even published more stories to date than the Tribune about the Blagojevich administration’s allegedly shady hiring practices. The AP, like the Tribune, seemed to hang back a little in 1998, when a few outlets were diligently trying to track down stories about George Ryan’s corruption. Things are much different now, of course, but there is another big dissimilarity between this year and 1998. Back then, the sitting U.S. attorney all but cleared George Ryan shortly before the election, announcing that Ryan wasn’t a target of any federal investigation. Patrick Fitzgerald proved again several days ago that he is a different sort of guy. Fitzgerald has already essentially labeled Blagojevich “Official A” in a federal plea agreement — a very good indication that Blagojevich is on his radar screen. Then, recently, Fitzgerald allowed the public release of a letter he had sent to Attorney General Lisa Madigan that contained some explosive information about his ongoing investigations. As you almost certainly know by now, Fitzgerald wrote to Madigan of “very serious allegations of endemic hiring fraud” within the Blagojevich administration. Fitzgerald alluded to allegations about fraudulent hiring records and claimed that “multiple state agencies and departments” have been implicated. At least one insider has reportedly told friends that he expects to be indicted before the election, but right now that’s all just pure speculation. In the past, federal prosecutors have tried to avoid doing anything that might tip an election one way or another. Fitzgerald obviously isn’t concerned about what his investigation might do to Blagojevich’s electoral chances, and that has made him the most important person in the governor’s race. Despite all of his campaign cash and political acumen, Blagojevich may ultimately have no control over his own destiny. I am a little surprised, however, that the governor’s people didn’t take their usual shot at Republican opponent Judy Baar Topinka after a recent Tribune report surfaced. When the Trib revealed that the human-resources director at the Illinois Department of Employment Security was deemed unqualified and that certain questionable hires were made there, the governor harped on the fact that it was his own inspector general who had uncovered the alleged wrongdoing. He has since declared that he is ecstatic over all of the negative headlines because it somehow proves that he and his investigators are doing a great job of ferreting out corruption. “The headlines are great,” he told stunned reporters last week. Despite the fact that almost nobody believes it, the inspector-general angle is one of the only avenues the governor had, but he left another one wide open. The Department of Employment Security hiring director in question was eventually hired by Treasurer Topinka’s office. Topinka’s people did have some defenses at the ready, including the fact that they had done a state-police background check and that the Blagojevich administration allowed the person to resign rather than fire her. But a reasonable defense by the other side has never stopped the governor’s attack machine before. You would think that Blagojevich would try to pivot on this and blame Topinka for continuing the “culture of corruption” while he was trying to clean it up. Maybe he’s off his game — or maybe his campaign is just saving the hit for their TV ads.