Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Missed opportunities

Gov. Rod Blagojevich escaped what would have been a media frenzy today by sneaking around Springfield for the annual Governor’s Prayer Breakfast and, according to the first lines of his speech, holding another meeting in the governor’s mansion about a state capital plan. His office provided audio of the nine-minute speech, and spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch said he then met with labor leaders about capital. He was back in Chicago by noon. The Statehouse press corps didn’t know about the events until after the fact. The quick in-and-out allowed him to avoid reporters who would have followed his every move to ask him to respond to Tuesday’s news — a political insider pleaded guilty and indicated that Blagojevich knew of an illegal deal to exchange a high-level state job for campaign contributions.

Ali Ata, former executive director of the Illinois Finance Authority, pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators and fudging his federal income tax return. The federal probe is separate from but related to the case called “Operation Board Games,” involving Antoin “Tony” Rezko’s alleged influence in state business and campaign fundraising. Here’s that indictment, again.

Ata’s plea agreement indicates Rezko was instrumental in hiring Ata as executive director of the Illinois Finance Authority in exchange for his hefty contributions to Blagojevich’s political campaign. The state agency formed in 2004 and finances about $3 billion in projects for economic development each year.

The plea agreement said Ata met with Rezko and “Public Official A,” identified as Blagojevich, before Blagojevich was elected governor in 2000 or 2001 to talk about supporting his political campaign. They later talked about granting a state position in return.

Donations came in chunks as large as $25,000, as seen in Illinois State Board of Elections records. You can search all of Ata’s campaign donations here. Type in his name and scroll down to see his July 25, 2005, donation of $25,000 to Friends of Blagojevich.

In one conversation, Ata said he would accept a position within the administration, and Blagojevich allegedly said it had “better be a job where [Ata] could make some money,” according to the plea agreement. Ata allegedly was told he could head the Illinois Finance Authority as long as he agreed to report to Rezko. He officially was appointed in January 2004.

The plea agreement says Ata believed that he needed to please Rezko to keep his job. That involved donating about $125,000 to Rezko between 2003 and 2004, while he led the state agency.

Ata faces up to eight years in federal prison and up to $500,000 in fines. He’s fully cooperating with federal authorities.

Public reaction
The more that unfolds in the federal investigations surrounding the Blagojevich Administration, the more ears might perk up at the sound of “recall.” That would allow voters to kick someone out of office, but it requires a change in the state Constitution, either through an individual amendment or through a constitutional convention. Support for both could be growing, according to a survey by the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield. A convention would allow elected delegates to rewrite the entire state Constitution. And a majority of the public would have to approve the new charter.

Debate within the Capitol includes whether such emotional voting would lead to undesirable consequences in the long run. Whether the public likes or dislikes Blagojevich, changing the state Constitution to allow a recall of constitutional officers or state lawmakers — or any elected official, as proposed in the state Senate — could forever change the way elected officials behave. Supporters say that change is good because it would remind public officials that they always are accountable to the people who elected them. Opponents argue that change is bad because it would make public officials even more paranoid about voter dissatisfaction and, in turn, lead them to do whatever it takes to ensure they’re reelected.

For more information about a constitutional convention, see previous Illinois Issues articles:

November 2007 feature about Con-Con logistics, by Pat Guinane

December 2007 Q&A with Wayne Whalen, a delegate in the 1969-1970 Con-Con

Illinois Issues Blog entries about Con-Con

See more in the upcoming Illinois Issues magazine in the first week of May.

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