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Obama's Conduct Not Questioned In Illinois Scandal

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. For the better part of two years, a politician from Illinois named Barack Obama has been the biggest story going. But yesterday it was another Illinois official who was suddenly in the spotlight. Governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, was arrested, as you might have heard, by federal authorities at his Chicago home. He's accused of trying to get cash payments and other favors in exchange for an appointment to fill the U.S. Senate seat just vacated by the president-elect. The U.S. Attorney says Blagojevich even tried to cut a deal with aides to Obama, only to be rebuffed. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: According to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the Illinois governor wanted to get the best deal possible for himself in choosing someone to finish Mr. Obama's term in the Senate. It was kind of an auction with Blagojevich seeking offers of cash, campaign contributions, or jobs for his wife or for himself. The criminal complaint says Blagojevich believed that Obama had someone he wanted to see get the appointment. In the complaint, that person is called Senate candidate number one, and she's believed to be Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, who has since been named to a top White House job. Here's Patrick Fitzgerald.

Mr. PATRICK FITZGERALD (U.S. Attorney, Northern District of Illinois): I should make clear that the complaint makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever, his conduct. This part of the scheme lost steam when the person that the governor thought was the president-elect's choice of senator took herself out of the running.

GONYEA: When the Obama transition team refused to play along, Fitzgerald says the tape recordings captured Blagojevich's reaction.

Mr. FITZGERALD: This is the governor's reaction. Quote, "They're not willing to give me anything but appreciation. Bleep them." Close quote. And again the bleep is a redaction.

GONYEA: Obama does have considerable history with Blagojevich, having advised him in his first run for governor in 2002 when Obama was working his way up the political ladder. Obama endorsed the governor for re-election in 2006. In recent years the governor and Mr. Obama were often photographed together, but were not considered close allies. Yesterday in Chicago, President-elect Obama held a photo opportunity with former Vice President Al Gore. He'd hoped to talk about the environment, but was forced to weigh in on the topic of the day.

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: I'll just answer this one question. I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so we were not - I was not aware of what was happening. And as I said, it's a sad day for Illinois. Beyond that, I don't think it's appropriate to comment. OK.

GONYEA: But that brief ad-libbed answer raised questions because Obama adviser David Axelrod said just over two weeks ago that the president-elect had indeed had contact with Blagojevich. This is from the local Fox News affiliate in Chicago. It aired late last month.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Mr. DAVID AXELROD (Democratic Political Consultant): I know he's talked to the governor and, you know, he's - there are a whole range of names, many of which have surfaced. And he's - I think he has a fondness for a lot of them.

GONYEA: But last night, Axelrod issued a statement saying he was mistaken then, and that no such discussions between the president-elect and Blagojevich ever took place. An Obama aide says the scandal will have no effect on the transition. Still, it has been an unwelcome distraction, to say the least. And it's not going to go away anytime soon. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: NPR political editor Ken Rudin writes about what's next for the Illinois governor and how the Obama Senate seat gets filled on his blog, "Political Junkie." You can find it at npr.org/junkie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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