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Obama clears himself and staff

He says an internal review shows there were no inappropriate conversations with the Illinois governor.

December 16, 2008|Christi Parsons and John McCormick | Parsons is a writer in our Washington bureau. McCormick writes for the Chicago Tribune.

WASHINGTON AND CHICAGO — Barack Obama said Monday that an internal investigation had found his staff had no inappropriate conversations with Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich over who would succeed the president-elect in the Senate.

But Obama said the review of his staff's contacts would not be made public until next week at the request of federal prosecutors, who are investigating whether Blagojevich put Obama's Senate seat up for sale.

"I had no contact with the governor's office, and I had no contact with anybody in the governor's office," Obama said at a news conference called to introduce his energy and environment team. He said the review showed the Blagojevich scandal "had nothing to do with my office."

Obama's comments came as Illinois state lawmakers moved to impeach Blagojevich. The Illinois House voted 113 to 0 to create an investigations committee to consider allegations that the governor, a Democrat, had abused his office.

"We plan to proceed without delay," said House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, who is also head of the state's Democratic Party.

In addition to allegedly trying to enrich himself through his power to name Obama's Senate successor, Blagojevich is accused in a criminal complaint of scheming to exchange state favors for campaign funds and of plotting to get Chicago Tribune editorial writers fired for writing pieces critical of him.

Ignoring a chorus of calls for his resignation, Blagojevich reported to work Monday and signed a bill giving tax credits to filmmakers who do work in Illinois.

The scandal has become a distraction for Obama during what had been a smooth transition.

The Chicago Tribune has reported that at least one senior member of Obama's staff, Rahm Emanuel, who will be White House chief of staff, had conversations with Blagojevich's administration about who would replace Obama in the Senate. Sources did not suggest that Emanuel was involved in any discussions about making a deal.

Obama's transition office said in a statement Monday that the internal review had "affirmed" the president-elect's comments that he had not talked directly with Blagojevich or his office and that Obama's staff "was not involved in inappropriate discussions with the governor or his staff."

Obama has promised to release the review. But he said it would not be made public until next week at the request of U.S. Atty. Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who is leading the Blagojevich investigation.

"Those facts will be forthcoming to all of you in due course," Obama said at the news conference. "We just want to make sure we're not interfering with an ongoing and active investigation."

Fitzgerald released a statement backing up Obama's account that a delay had been requested.

"After the president-elect announced an internal transition team investigation, the United States attorney's office requested a brief delay of the release of a report of that investigation to conduct certain interviews," Fitzgerald said in the statement.

One former Justice Department official said prosecutors often wanted to control what was publicly known about the statements of witnesses.

"Information may be released about what one witness says that could compromise the effectiveness of interview or grand jury testimony of other parties to that conversation," said George Terwilliger, a former deputy attorney general.

"Prosecutors never want somebody else mucking around in what they're doing and releasing the results of their own inquiries, whether it's a private company, the Congress or, in this case, a political operation," he said.

Political strategists said the delay would be helpful to Obama, moving the release of new information into a week when people will be more focused on Christmas.

"From a public relations standpoint, it mitigates the exposure somewhat," said Thom Serafin, a Chicago-based political and media advisor. "The unfortunate thing for the president-elect right now is that he's operating out of Chicago, which is ground zero right now."

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cparsons@tribune.com

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