CHICAGO (AP) — Federal judges who tossed several of Rod Blagojevich's corruption convictions endeavored to answer a question legal observers said Wednesday had gone largely unanswered: Just when does an elected official cross the line between legal and illegal political horse-trading?
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago overturned five out of 18 wide-ranging counts against the imprisoned former Illinois governor, focusing the bulk of its 23-page opinion on Blagojevich's bid to trade his power to appoint someone to the U.S. Senate seat that Barack Obama vacated to became president for either campaign cash or a top job.
Courts have offered credible definitions of corporate corruption, but political corruption has been less well defined, Jeff Cramer, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago said Wednesday, a day after the court's ruling, which also called for Blagojevich to be resentenced. That means the 7th Circuit's conclusions could influence how courts and prosecutors nationwide handle political corruption cases, he said.
"One of the main points of having laws is to give people a clearer idea about what's legal and what's not legal," Cramer said. "It's not supposed to be a game of gotcha."
The determining factor in whether Blagojevich crossed the line into illegality, a panel of three judges said, was money.
In FBI wiretaps played at his two trials, a foul-mouthed Blagojevich appeared to refer to money or something else of value to him when he crowed infamously about the Senate seat, "I've got this thing and it's f------ golden. And I'm just not giving it up for f------ nothing."
According to the 7th Circuit, Blagojevich crossed the line when he sought cash in exchange for putting someone in Obama's old Senate seat or in exchange for other official gubernatorial action. The court upheld a dozen counts based on such offers.
But it said Blagojevich didn't pass into the realm of corruption when he asked for a seat for himself in Obama's Cabinet in exchange for appointing Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to the Senate. The court said it could find no other cases in U.S. history where a politician was charged based on his bid for a political appointment.
The trading of such favors based on politicians' executive powers is legitimate and often a beneficial exercise in "political logrolling," the court said.
"A President appoints C as an ambassador, which Senator D asked the President to do, in exchange for D's promise to vote to confirm E as a member of the National Labor Relations Board," the rulings states. "Governance would hardly be possible without these accommodations."
Prosecutors argued Blagojevich acted illegally because he sought the Cabinet post not for someone else, but for himself. But the appellate court said politicians often seek positions for themselves.
It's always preferable to have clearer lines about what is and isn't permissible under a law, Cramer, who heads of the Chicago office of the investigation firm Kroll, said. But he criticized the opinion for suggesting secret deals to trade political favors is within the bounds of the law.
"This court's message is: Don't take an envelope with money," he said. "It's hard to put the bar much lower in Illinois — and I think we just did."
"Defense attorneys can now say, 'It's politics as usual,'" he later added. "Now, (that) will be a viable defense."
But David Melton, an executive director of Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, thinks the court got it right.
"Blagojevich tried to justify everything he did by calling it 'politics as usual'... and, for the most part, the court rejected that," he said. "If someone wants to emulate him, if they want to make that their defense, they will end up in jail."
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