Illinois State Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested on corruption charges on Tuesday. Accused of scheming to enrich himself by selling President-elect Barack Obama’s open senate seat for cash or a lucrative job for himself. The incoming administration remains confident that no member of its team was involved with the deal. According to court papers, the governor tried to make it known through emissaries, including union officials and fundraisers, that the seat could be had for the right price. Ignoring calls for his resignation, Blagojevich was charged with two counts: Conspiracy to commit fraud, and solicitation to commit bribery. The governor has denied all wrongdoing. Josh Israel from The Center for Public Integrity believes that what the system needs “are tougher ethics laws and open disclosure.”
Illinois scandal is systemic
Producer: Zaa Nkweta
ZAA NKWETA, TRNN: Illinois State Governor Rob Blagojevich was arrested on corruption charges on Tuesday, accused of scheming to enrich himself by selling President-elect Barack Obama’s open Senate seat for cash or a lucrative job for himself. According to court papers, the governor tried to make it known through emissaries, including union officials and fund raisers, that the seat could be had for the right price. Blagojevich was charged with two counts: conspiracy to commit fraud and solicitation to commit bribery. Ignoring calls for his resignation, the governor has denied all wrongdoing. I spoke to Josh Israel from the Center for Public Integrity about corruption in the US public service.
JOSH ISRAEL, CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY: Governor Blagojeivich’s alleged corruption is certainly not the first time we’ve had issues like this, not even the first time we’ve had issues like this in the last month. Certainly this scandal, in part because of his colorful language and the fact that it’s the president-elect’s Senate seat in question, is certainly one of the more interesting ones of late, but, unfortunately, these sorts of problems have been all too common, and particularly in recent years. There are a few reasons why this is the case. The most obvious is just people with power tend to be in a position where they can abuse that power. If they don’t take the public trust seriously, there’s a lot of damage they can do. Illinois is one of the few states in the United States with no limits at all, historically. And as of recently they’ve finally put in a limit on state contractors, but basically there remain no limitations on who can donate to state elected officials, and even how much. So, naturally, when you have a politician who has to spend millions of dollars to get elected to public office, and unless that person’s independently wealthy, like a Ross Perot or a Michael Bloomberg, they’re going to have to get that by asking for campaign contributions. The people that go to them and give them enormous campaign contributions—you know, in Illinois’ case with no cap—are going to far too often expect something in return, and that takes the form all too often of requesting special treatment, requesting access, requesting influence. This is something that has been going on, again, for a long time, but the fact that these scandals have come out in the past couple of years have led to enormous numbers of members of Congress to either be defeated, be sent to jail, or put into a position where they were unable to even run for reelection. There are definitely problems with the system. It’s not, obviously, everyone, but when there’s so much money in the system, particularly in the congressional level and in the state, it’s all too easy for people to get caught up. The Center for Public Integrity has in several recent years examined state-by-state the disclosure laws for its public officials. In every year we did it, including last year, Illinois got an F in our examination. The governor is not forced to disclose a significant amount of information, and once they do disclose it, in fact, there is virtually no systematic examination of their disclosures. All they do is make sure that they were actually signed. So they can put anything they want, and there’s zero oversight. And this is the way people find out about their elected officials, the way people can tell whether their governor or their state legislators have financial interests in the companies they’re regulating, are getting gifts or favorable treatment or corporate appointments, or their spouses, as was the case, allegedly, in this Blagojevich scandal, being appointed to corporate boards, and then sitting in judgment of those corporations. This is our way of having the antiseptic sunlight. And when you have state laws that are written by the same elected officials as are covered by them, it’s understandable that they’re not thrilled about the prospect of sharing all this information with the public. In order for us to have trust in our public institutions, openness in this process is vital. The media covers the individual scandals. They cover the stuff that’s entertaining. What you don’t see as much of, and it’s understandable but is unfortunate, is digging a step further to see what is wrong with the system: how is it that this was able to happen and why this continues to happen. I don’t think anyone’s really sure what the solution is. Some have advocated for restrictions on the amount of money that an individual can spend in campaigns; others say that violates free speech. Some have suggested that we need a system of public financing. It’s hard to imagine that any solution is going to be able to get all the money out of politics or all of the inappropriate influence. But what I think everyone should be able to agree on is very tough ethics laws and, as much as is humanly possible, open disclosure.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.