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Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2006 01:27 am

Lowdown

Why would Blagojevich accept a $1,500 "gift" for his daughter?

OK, by a show of hands, how many of you out there have ever given $1,500 to the college fund of a friend’s 7-year-old and then didn’t tell your spouse about it?

Yeah, I didn’t think so.

In case you haven’t heard yet, I’ll give you a brief wrap-up of the latest scandal that has befallen Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

You may remember that the governor amended his statement of economic interests after he was interviewed by the FBI. One of those amendments included a previously undisclosed gift from Michael Ascaridis, his campaign treasurer during his congressional bids and his first run for statewide office.

The Chicago Tribune reported the other day that Ascaridis’ wife, Beverly, was given a state job about the same time that her husband wrote a $1,500 check, ostensibly as a birthday gift to the governor’s daughter for her college fund. According to the Tribune, Beverly Ascaridis found the $1,500 check and was suspicious, so she brought it to the FBI’s attention.

And this wasn’t just any state job. The position was originally based in Whiteside County, so Beverly Ascaridis first had to be given that position out there and then transferred back to the Chicago area a month later. The trouble is, she told the Tribune that she doesn’t even know where Whiteside County is — so now we’re looking at possible ghost-payrolling allegations.

As of yet neither the governor’s office nor his campaign has offered up any sort of proof that the $1,500 check was actually deposited into a college fund.

The claimed birthday present eerily recalls a cash gift received by former Gov. George Ryan several years back that got him into serious hot water with the feds.

Anthony DeSantis, owner of the Drury Lane Theater, gave the Ryan family $2,500 in checks as a Christmas gift, which, DeSantis later testified, was a thank-you for securing his family some low-digit license plates.

DeSantis told the feds that he wanted to contribute to Ryan’s campaign fund but didn’t want his name on any forms, so Ryan told him to just write five checks for $500 each. Knowing that the FBI was hot on his trail, Ryan attempted to amend his ethics reports to reflect the gifts, just as Blagojevich did, but it was too late. The feds had already wrapped up DeSantis’ testimony.

Perhaps this is all an innocent misunderstanding and we should all just ignore this story, no matter how odd the circumstances may be.

Frankly, though, it doesn’t matter what you or I — or even the Tribune — think. The only thing that counts is what the FBI and the U.S. attorney are interested in.

Some of us were surprised at the way the prosecutors were able to combine a few somewhat dinky allegations into a major federal case against George Ryan. If the feds are interested in targeting the current governor, they’ve already proved that they will scoop as low as the evasion of a couple hundred dollars in income taxes to make their case, as they did with Ryan. Just about anything can be made to look criminal once the feds start putting their spin on things.

But even aside from the criminality, what sort of a governor accepts a $1,500 gift for his kid from a friend of modest means just after he put the guy’s wife into a nice little state job? If this is completely innocent, didn’t any alarm bells go off in the governor’s head? And what kind of a governor then neglects to report this gift, and several others, on his ethics forms for years, then only reports them after the FBI comes calling?

This story stinks on multiple levels, and it’s up to the governor himself to clear it up. Have there been any other large cash gifts to his children from people with an interest in state government? Has he accepted any large cash gifts since he was elected governor? Even though the governor’s office claims that Beverly Ascaridis was qualified for her job, a mutual acquaintance has informed me that she ran a doggy-daycare business before she got the job, so I can’t help but wonder what the hiring process entailed.

Finally, have the governor’s personal financial records been subpoenaed by federal prosecutors?

I’ll let you know if we ever get a full response — but don’t hold your breath.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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