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Thursday, Sept. 24, 2009 06:21 am

Chris Kelly, Blagojevich’s loyal friend

Christopher Kelly, an adviser and campaign fundraiser for Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, leaves Dirksen U.S. Courthouse Sept. 8, four days before he committed suicide.
PHOTO BY CHRIS WALKER/MCT

A couple of years ago, Rod Blagojevich told me during a private conversation that all the talk about how close he supposedly was to indicted fundraiser Tony Rezko was just that. Talk.

Ah, but Chris Kelly, Blagojevich said, now that’s a real friend, a close friend, a confidante. Blagojevich said he genuinely admired Kelly on multiple levels — his success in business, his family, his people judgment abilities and his uncanny knowledge of all things sports. The two men talked almost every day, Blagojevich said, sometimes several times a day. He said it seemed like he was as close to Kelly as he’d once been to his own brother.

Blagojevich said at the time that he was certain Kelly would never be indicted. But what if Kelly was popped, I asked, pointing out that the governor’s buddy had been mentioned several times in Rezko’s indictment. If Kelly is so close to you, wouldn’t his indictment mean that the U.S. Attorney was working his way up the ladder to get the guy at the top? After all, I pointed out, the old saying “If the feds want you, they’ll get you,” isn’t too far from the truth.

I’ve rarely seen such a dark cloud move so quickly over someone’s demeanor. Blagojevich’s smile suddenly vanished from his face, replaced with what looked almost like a haunted expression.

He had been sitting straight upright, but then Blagojevich’s shoulders hunched forward, his head dropped and he looked downward and to the right, rested his forearm on his leg, took a few deep breaths and finally said, “If it happens, I’ll have to deal with it then.”

It seemed to me at the time that Blagojevich had never really talked about this subject with anyone. He may have given it some thought, but he didn’t appear to have yet fully intellectualized the dire situation he was in. That Kelly question led to several others, of both him and his wife, about what they had managed to do to themselves. More on that another time. Suffice it to say that it was an all-around emotionally draining day.

Chris Kelly was indicted on tax fraud charges just a few months after my uncomfortable conversation with Blagojevich. So much for Blagojevich’s certainty.

Kelly had apparently used his computer-like brain to make millions of dollars in sports bets, and then hid the profits from the IRS, as well as the money-moving to cover his debts. Several months later, with the feds in full pursuit of Kelly, Blagojevich replaced his old friend at the campaign with his biological brother Rob, who was brought in to handle the finances.

One brother out, another brother in. This time, though Blagojevich chose “real” blood. The kind of blood that one can be sure doesn’t talk to government investigators. Turns out, he didn’t need to worry.

Kelly pled guilty to the IRS charges this past January, then was indicted a month later on an O’Hare Airport bid-rigging scheme. Two months after that, he was indicted as part of the charges brought against Rod Blagojevich and Blagojevich’s brother. According to that indictment, Kelly, Blagojevich and others had schemed since the first 2002 campaign to use the governor’s office to pad their pockets.

It was clear as day that the feds were squeezing Kelly for all he was worth to get him to talk about how he ran Blagojevich’s inner circle and how he and his co-defendants had used the governor’s office to enrich themselves, Blagojevich’s campaign fund and Blagojevich’s family.

The federal case against Blagojevich would receive a gigantic boost if Kelly cooperated. Kelly talked to them about it a for a while in May, then stopped. He was sentenced for the IRS plea in June, then pled out the O’Hare contracting charge last week. He was scheduled to report to prison this Friday, but died early Saturday morning of a reported drug overdose.

“This is tragic,” a distraught Kelly family friend told me shortly after the news broke that Kelly had apparently committed suicide. “Rod does not deserve this kind of loyalty.”

He most certainly doesn’t.

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

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