On September 17, 2009, Chicago Tribune columnist Dennis Byrne accused Barack Obama of “abetting” the Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones’ efforts to block meaningful ethics reform in Illinois. Byrne wanted Obama to urge Jones to call the Illinois Senate back into session in order to override Blagojevich’s veto of a bill that would have banned companies from making campaign donations to certain state officials if they were doing more than $50,000 in business with the state. Obama had declined to get involved in the matter other than to express his generalized support for reform. Byrne ranted “Agent of change, my foot.”
While I did not think it fair to blame Obama for what Blagojevich and Jones were doing, I realized that it was not unreasonable to expect him to express his support for the bill. Obama’s ability to stay clean in the cesspool of Illinois and Chicago politics was one of the things that most impressed me; however, his endorsement of Democratic hacks like County Board President Todd Stroger had disappointed me. On the other hand, I thought that getting involved was a no-win proposition for Obama. If he was successful, it would carry little weight outside Illinois—a state that he already had locked up. If he failed, he would look ineffectual across the entire country and give Republicans tons of ammo.
To my surprise, Obama decided to call Jones and Jones agreed to call the Illinois Senate back into session to pass the ethics bill. Blagojevich whined that Obama was falling into a GOP trap. “Let me be clear: I don’t think he (Obama) should be asked to be involved in any of this. He’s busy running for president,” the governor said. “It’s the Republicans who dragged him into this issue. They’re the ones who called on him to call on Senate President Jones to act on the ethics bill.” Nevertheless, the bill passed and will take effect in January.
It is apparent that Obama’s phone call indirectly sparked Blagojevich mad cash scramble. According to the criminal complaint filed by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, after passage of the bill, Blagojevich “accelerat[ed] his corrupt fund raising activities to accumulate as much money as possible before the implementation of ethics legislation on January 1, 2009.” This led Fitzgerald to seek court approval to tap Blagojevich’s office and bug his phone. Like the contestants on Supermarket Sweep, Blagojevich was desperately filling his shopping cart with cash in the allotted time.