December 17, 2008


As the sordid melodrama involving Illinois' latest stupid and corrupt governor unfolds, a dizzying array of legal and political scenarios loom.

Does Rod Blagojevich fight or quit? A trial on corruption changes would not occur until 2010 or later, and during most of 2009 he'd still be governor. Being a governor has a lot more leverage than being an ex-governor, as former New York governor Eliot Spitzer has discovered.

Do the feds, after the governor's expected January indictment, pile on more charges? Or would a quick Blagojevich resignation, as part of a plea bargain, get him a lenient sentence with minimal or no jail time? The current charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and solicitation of bribery carry sentences of 20 and 10 years, respectively, and a fine of $250,000 each.

Will first lady Patti Blagojevich be indicted? She allegedly got real estate commissions from deals involving individuals who reaped state business. Is it possible that she could, in exchange for immunity, sing on her husband?

What about impeachment? The Illinois House has to appoint a committee to investigate and formulate charges and then pass an impeachment resolution by a majority vote. Then the Illinois Senate has to conduct a trial and vote by a two-thirds majority to remove the governor. That would take months, well into late 2009.

But, more importantly for the state's ambitious political class, it's these questions that intrigue:

First, when will Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn become governor? It's not "if." Blagojevich's term ends in January of 2011. The Democratic primary is set for Feburary of 2010, although the General Assembly could move it back to March. If Quinn succeeds to the state's top post some time in 2009, he would run in 2010 as the incumbent.

Second, how long will Blagojevich hang onto his job? Nominating petitions for governor can be circulated in August, and the filing deadline is late November. What if an indicted Blagojevich is still governor next summer, has a trial date of mid-2010, and files for re-election?

In fact, from Blagojevich's perspective, to not seek renomination would be an admission of guilt, and as was demonstrated in the recent New Orleans congressional primary, where indicted incumbent Democrat Bill Jefferson won with 25 percent of the vote over a large field, Blagojevich may have serious delusions of victory.

Third, why would Blagojevich make a deal? When the news media in 2008 revealed that Spitzer allegedly solicited prostitution, the shamed and contrite governor admitted his fallibilities, apologized to his wife and family, and resigned. Blagojevich ain't Spitzer. Don't expect any public contrition or remorse -- or resignation.

Blagojevich probably has a month-long window, through mid-January, to negotiate a plea, which would involve his immediate resignation and some jail time. But criminals are delusional, and the utterly amoral Blagojevich surely believes that he has done nothing wrong -- and that a jury can be persuaded of that.

And fourth, remaining as governor is the best avenue to influence the jury pool. Illinois faces a $5 billion-plus budget shortfall for fiscal year 2009, which will necessitate either a tax hike or spending cuts next year. Absent an indictment, the opportunistic Blagojevich would delay a tax increase until after he won a third term, but now he can be "responsible," proclaim the need for Illinoisans to face reality, and advocate an individual and corporate income tax hike.

Remember George Ryan? The former governor, knowing an indictment was near, had an epiphany regarding the death penalty and commuted the sentences of a bunch of Death Row inmates. Was that compassion? Or was he trying to influence his jury pool?

The Democratic-controlled state legislature would be placed in an impossible situation. They don't want to be blamed for raising taxes, and they don't want to be blamed for making draconian cuts in spending and services, alienating minorities and liberal constituencies. They don't want to agree with anything Blagojevich proposes, and they don't want to Blagojevich to remain as governor through 2010, as the issues of taxes and corruption will be exploited by the Republicans to make a political comeback.

Blagojevich's fate may be in the U.S. attorney's hands, but the fates of a plethora of ambitious Democrats -- especially Quinn, Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan -- are in Blagojevich's hands. The governor has the opportunity to drown them all on his proverbial sinking ship.

Here are four possible scenarios, in no particular order of likelihood:

The "Rosy Scenario." That means getting rid of Blagojevich very quickly, before the enormity of his pay-to-play corruption and political "crime spree" make Illinois a national laughingstock. Ryan was convicted on 18 felony counts, including racketeering conspiracy. As U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald explained, Blagojevich was arrested on Dec. 9 because he allegedly was "selling" Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat. By January, or some time in 2009, Blagojevich may be indicted on up to a hundred felony counts -- one for every instance in which he accepted a campaign contribution in exchange for a state contract or appointment.

Impeachment would take months, well into mid-2009. A removal by the Illinois Supreme Court, as requested by Lisa Madigan, would take a year. If Blagojevich pleaded out and resigned now, Quinn would become governor, he could appoint Madigan to Obama's seat, and the whole sordid mess would end and would be forgotten by 2010 -- making the Democrats mighty happy.

The "Nightmare Scenario." Blagojevich's plight becomes not only "the story" of 2009, but the "only story." Instances of his ethical corruption become daily reports in newspaper headlines and television news. His wife turns state's evidence. A "bunker mentality" grips the governorship, much like Richard Nixon during the Watergate days of 1973-74. Paralysis grips state government.

Everybody calls for Blagojevich's resignation or impeachment, especially Democrats intent on distancing themselves from their crooked governor. Blagojevich denies he is a crook, holes up in his Ravenswood home, disengages from matters of governing, and floats off into the ozone of denial and paranoia.

Madigan, Quinn and a slew of angry Democrats run for governor, further fracturing an already dispirited party and making the nomination worthless. Blagojevich loses the primary, goes on trial just before the November 2010 election, and an anti-Blagojevich, anti-corruption, anti-Democratic tide sweeps the Republicans into power.

The "Small Scenario." Four of Illinois' previous eight governors were indicted, and three were convicted. Blagojevich will make it five of nine. All four were indicted after they left office, so their trial did not interfere with their ability to govern.

The last governor to serve while indicted was Republican Len Small, who was elected in 1920 and indicted in 1921 for conspiracy and embezzlement of more than $1 million in deposited state funds while he was the state treasurer. Under a change of venue, the case was tried in Waukegan, and Small was acquitted in 1922. Small was re-elected in 1924, although he later lost a civil case in which a judgment was entered against him for $1,025,434 in unaccounted state interest.

Blagojevich could, like the hapless Miriam Santos, demand a quick trial on the current charges, potentially blocking any additional counts, and take the case to a jury by next summer. If his defense counsel can block the admission of the incriminating wiretaps or cast them as some kind of joke, arguing that Blagojevich knew that he was being taped and was just toying with the feds, then an acquittal is a possibility. Or he could blame it on "persecution" by the Bush Administration, as former Alabama governor Don Siegelman did at his bribery trial, albeit unsuccessfully.

The "Likely Scenario." Blagojevich will decide, quite rationally, that the best defense is a good offense, that non-governance is not an option, and that he can wreak considerable vengeance on his enemies by remaining governor.  That means no plea, no resignation, and no quick trial.

It also means bedlam in Springfield, with the budget in chaos and the legislature mired in impeachment deliberations. Blagojevich will be impeached by the House, but not until May, and he will be tried and convicted by the Senate, but not until August. By September, he will be removed.

Most of 2009 will be consumed by Blagojevich's indictment and impeachment, and most of 2010 by his trial. When this sordid affair is over, Blagojevich will be reviled and remembered: Reviled by Democratic politicians for precipitating a Republican revival in Illinois and blocking Lisa Madigan from the governorship and remembered as Illinois' most vile, brazen and stupid governor -- quite an accomplishment, given his competition.

A year from now, when compared to Blagojevich, George Ryan will appear to be a pillar of moral rectitude.