CHICAGO — Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois was arrested Tuesday on wide-ranging corruption charges that included an alleged plot to sell the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.
Obama was not accused of wrongdoing. But the scandal's eruption in the middle of the White House transition cast an unwelcome light on the often-seamy political culture of the state where he launched his career. It also drew new attention to Obama's personal ties to Antoin Rezko, a Chicago developer convicted in a kickback scheme during the presidential campaign.
In what U.S. Atty. Patrick J. Fitzgerald called a "political corruption crime spree," Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, conspired to trade the Senate appointment and other state favors for campaign money and jobs for the governor and his wife, prosecutors said.
Blagojevich, a Democrat who ran as a reformer eager to clean up corruption at the statehouse, spoke explicitly about the alleged bribes in profanity-laced conversations captured on FBI wiretaps in the governor's home and campaign office, authorities said.
Prosecutors said the charges included an attempt to extort the Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.
Blagojevich and Harris threatened to withhold state financing for the company's sale of Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, unless the Chicago Tribune fired editorial writers who had called for the governor's impeachment, prosecutors said.
Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, called the two-term governor's actions "the most staggering crime spree in office I have ever seen."
He said Blagojevich "put a 'for sale' sign on the naming of a United States senator; involved himself personally in pay-to-play schemes with the urgency of a salesman meeting his annual sales target; and corruptly used his office in an effort to trample editorial voices of criticism."
"The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave," Fitzgerald said.
The governor was awakened at his Chicago home before dawn Tuesday by a phone call from Robert Grant, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Chicago office. Grant told Blagojevich that two agents were at his door with a warrant for his arrest. Blagojevich asked the FBI agent if he was joking, then made his way outside, where he was handcuffed and led away.
Sporting a track suit and running shoes, Blagojevich was released on his own recognizance after a court hearing, having posted a $4,500 bond. He's still empowered to appoint Obama's successor in the Senate.
Today is the governor's 52nd birthday.
"He's sad, surprised and innocent," Blagojevich attorney Sheldon Sorosky told reporters outside the governor's home Tuesday night.
As recently as Monday, Blagojevich told reporters: "I should say if anybody wants to tape my conversations, go right ahead, feel free to do it. . . . [W]hatever I say is always lawful. . . . I don't believe there's any cloud that hangs over me; I think there's nothing but sunshine hanging over me."
Prosecutors, however, portrayed Blagojevich as a brazen crook. Court papers quoted the governor describing his power to pick Obama's successor as a golden opportunity to land a job as a U.S. ambassador or secretary of Health and Human Services.
The governor also allegedly suggested that he could make the Senate appointment in exchange for campaign money, a lucrative job at a pro-labor or nonprofit organization for himself or corporate board seats for his wife that would bring the couple up to $150,000 a year.
At one point, he said that if he could not land a profitable enough deal, he would appoint himself to replace Obama, according to a 76-page affidavit from the U.S. attorney's office. Blagojevich told a deputy governor that if "they're not going to offer me anything of value, I might as well take it," prosecutors said.
"I'm just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing," he said, according to the court papers. "I'm not gonna do it."
Blagojevich, who has been dogged for several years by corruption allegations, said moving to the Senate might help him avoid impeachment and polish his image for a 2016 presidential run, prosecutors said.
For the president-elect, the case made for a big distraction from transition business. It overshadowed Obama's meeting in Chicago with former Vice President Al Gore to discuss climate change and energy policy. He told reporters the alleged "pay-to-play" over his Senate replacement caught him by surprise.
"I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so I was not aware of what was happening," Obama said.
As he worked his way up from the state Senate to the U.S. Senate, Obama was often at odds with the Democratic machine in Chicago. Nonetheless, he built alliances that have at times caused him political troubles.