Patrick Fitzgerald: Intrepid Crime Fighter? Or, Politically-Driven Leaker? The Timing of the Blago Arrest and the Willing Suspension of Disbelief (Part 3)


Hugo Floriani, Investigative Reporter

Completely believing Patrick Fitzgerald’s publically stated explanation concerning the timing of the arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich in December 2008 – “we’re in the middle of a corruption crime spree, and we wanted to stop it” – represents what one popular politician once called “the willing suspension of disbelief.”

The “we wanted to stop it” part is obviously true. The motive, though, is…well, questionable. Disbelief requires presenting an alternative explanation necessarily based on circumstantial evidence.  Does that lean into conjecture? Sure. Might it also come closer to the truth than the official version announced in the press conference held in the wake of the arrest of Blago?  That’s for you to eventually decide.

The link to the complete transcript of the Press Conference hosted by Patrick Fitzgerald after the arrest of Blago is found here. The 47-minute video version is available in total, and in brief episodes:

We’ll start toward an alternative understanding of what happened, but not finish yet, by parsing portions of that press conference, looking for the back story of why Fitzpatrick decided to pull the trigger on the arrest of Blago, who’d been under investigation for years, at that particular time.  Remember, it was December 9, 2008.  Approximately one month after the election of former Illinois Senator Barack Obama to the Presidency.

Here are the transcripts of several exchanges, with the starting time in the video linked above at the beginning of each question.

[14.13] Question #1:  Mr. Fitzgerald was this done today in an effort to head off the appointment of someone to fill Barack Obama’s senate seat? Was it – was it so imminent that that’s why you had to step in?

MR. FITZGERALD: I would say that we decided that this required unusual measures and there are a lot of things going on that were imminent. There's a bill sitting on a desk that we think a person who was supporting that bill has been squeezed to give $100,000. And to let that bill be signed, to me, would be very, very troubling.

There's a hospital -- a children's memorial hospital -- believing that it's getting $8 million, but its CEO has not coughed up a campaign contribution, and the thought that that money may get pulled back from a children's memorial hospital is something that you cannot abide. There is an editor that they'd like fired from the Tribune, and I laid awake at night, worried whether I'd read in the paper in the morning that when there were lay-offs, that we'd find out that that person was laid off.

The complaint -- the complaint lays out, in there in fact, when there were layoffs, there were conversations to find out whether the editor who should of -- they thought should be fired, and he wasn't. And the governor was asking whether there would be more layoffs. So we have a governor in this modern times, the only one who's looking for more layoffs. You take that, what's going on and add it to the fact that we have a Senate seat that seemed to be, as recently as days ago, auctioned off to, you know, to the highest bidder for campaign contributions. And Governor Blagojevich, own words, on the -- on the tape or the bug that set forth in the complaint, talked about selling this like a sports agent.

QUESTION: Couldn't you...

MR. FITZGERALD: So -- so -- I'm just -- and so, we stepped in for a number of reasons. Basically, as I said before, we're in the middle of a clutching crime spree, and we wanted to stop it.

Comment: The question, and Fitzpatrick’s answer, assumes that once Blago appointed someone to Obama’s seat that person was immediately – presto – a U.S. Senator. The subsequent and multiple legislative steps, and the accompanying length of time, that passed after Blago named Roland Burris before Burris was sworn in as a U.S. Senator disproves that assumption on its face.

The timing of the arrest let person or persons prepared to engage in the buying of a Senatorial seat off the hook. And, furthermore, none of the “imminent” events to which Fitzpatrick referred – the possible firing of a newspaper editor, a bill in the Illinois legislature, state money denied to a children’s hospital – were irrevocable if the USAO had waited until a deal between Blago and another party was consummated.

 It would be like arresting one drug dealer while he was negotiating a price on a shipment of heroin with another drug dealer in order to stop the crime. One gets away to buy another day.

[15:57] QUESTION #2: You said twice that we shouldn't cast dispersions {sic}on people who we think we recognize within a complaint. Does that mean that all of these people are beyond blame in any way? I mean some of the things in the complaint point a very, kind of, a tacky finger at some people, their willingness to play. And if pay-to-play is illegal. Isn't the willingness to play also culpable if you didn't charge today?

FITZGERALD: OK, there -- what -- what I'm trying to say is this: Look, we never give -- you know, and I think anyone who's from Chicago knows, you've heard it a thousand times -- we don't give clean bills of health. And what I've always been afraid of is you can say, you know, did -- did Carlos or me -- are we in trouble? I'm never going to say no, because that's just our practice, but I don't want people, when they answer those questions, to imply that someone is in trouble.

What I'm trying to do it is explain caution about a complaint. When someone says something that's on tape, largely, they're stuck with it. But when someone says something on tape about someone else, you usually want to do more investigation to verify what it is that happened.

And we're going to do that investigation and verify what it is that happened, what didn't happen, what the circumstances are.

There may be people who had no idea what was going on, had no idea they were being discussed. There may be other people who were involved in things they shouldn't have been involved in. And we're going to sort that out, and we're going to see, you know, some things will be black and white and some things be shades of gray.

Comment: The brief answer to the question (underlined) is, apparently, no. The person(s) negotiating price with Blago were cut-outs that left the person(s) they represented the option of a credible denial – long an effective tactic among Chicago pols. It’s the Sergeant Schultz Defense: “I know nothing.”

 As at least one of those potential deals moved toward consummation, the façade of credible denial would be seriously damaged by an exchange of money. Might that person, who stood to buy the Obama seat, have been the one Fitzpatrick was protecting by arresting Blago before money changed hands? More on that in Part 4.

[18:12] Question #3: ... Also, would you address the fact -- and I know you referred to this -- would you just address whether or not President-elect Obama was aware that any of these things were taking place?

MR. FITZGERALD: OK. I'm not going to speak for what the president- elect was aware of. We make no allegations that he's aware of anything. And that's as simply as I can put it…

Comment: This is an artful dodge of the question.  He didn’t say yes.  He didn’t say no.  He didn’t say he didn’t know.  He said he can’t speak for what Obama was aware of. Well, of course he can’t.

[28:30] Question #4: Mr. Fitzgerald, would you make clear just something about the timing here? When the Tribune ran its story a few days ago revealing that the governor was being taped, would you explain -- and I think some of this is laid out in the complaint -- did further taping take place or did that essentially terminate your ability to listen in?

MR. FITZGERALD: Well, what I would say is, to back up and to the extent that there have been articles, I'm not confirming or denying the accuracy of the articles. You can compare them against what happened.

I will say this, as you guys know, you guys are in the information business of getting it and publishing it, and we're in the information business of getting it and using it.

About eight weeks ago, before we had the bug installed and before we had the wiretap up, we were contacted by the Tribune to comment or confirm or deny on a story that they were going to run.

Had they ran that story, we thought we'd never have the opportunity to install the bug or place the telephone tap. And we made an urgent request for the Tribune not to publish that story.

That is a very rare thing for us to do and it's an even rarer thing for a newspaper to grant. We thought that the public interest required that the story not run…etc, etc, etc.

Comment: The complete answer goes on for 428 words. The net result of it is that the Tribune exposed a key element of an ongoing criminal investigation at a critical moment in that investigation and, according to Fitzpatrick, “I appreciate that and respect what they did.” Really? Well, perhaps he did.

[32:15] Question #5: QUESTION: You spoke before about if Senator -- you didn't know the awareness that Senator -- or President-elect Barack Obama knew about this. So is it safe to say he has not been briefed? And can you also tell us if any phone calls that were made to President-elect Obama that you intercepted, or to Rahm Emanuel?

MR. FITZGERALD: Anna, I'm not going to go down anything that's not in the complaint. And what I simply said before is, I'm not -- I have enough trouble speaking for myself, I'm never going to try to speak in the voice of a president or president-elect. So I simply pointed out that if you look at the complaint, there's no allegation that the president-elect -- there's no reference in the complaint to any conversation involving the president-elect or indicating that the president-elect was aware of it, and that's all I can say.

Comment:  Another dodge.

[37:40] Question #6:  QUESTION: I got a question -- if you could also just clarify again, is discussing a quid pro quo where he, you know, acted criminally versus actually carrying out. I mean, if he's just having conversations about eliminating a member of the editorial board at the Chicago Tribune but nothing is actually carried out, how much of that is just someone trying to be a tough guy and how much of that is criminal behaviors?

MR. FITZGERALD: Well, you hit on two questions. One is a legal distinction. There is scheming or conspiracy to commit a crime and then there's a substantive crime. We've charged conspiracy or scheming in this complaint.

One of the things we want to do with this investigation is to track out the different schemes and conspiracies to find out which ones were carried out or not and who might be involved in that or not. And that's something we haven't done yet. Now that we've gone overt we'll be interviewing people and figuring that out.

But it is a crime in and of itself for people to scheme to violate the law. That's called conspiracy. Then there's a substantive crime.

As far as how much -- whether or not there people acting like a tough guy or not, I don't want to pre-try the case, but if you lean on someone and leave them to believe their bill is not getting signed unless they give you the money, that is what acting like a tough guy is, it's a crime.

And we can sort through it at any trial as to what was said, what was followed through, but it is a crime to conspire to shake someone down.

Comment: The USAO was after only one criminal. Blago. The other criminals who were conspiring to commit a crime by buying a senate seat, which is a crime in and of itself, got a pass.

[39:00] Questions #7 & #8: Sir, just to be crystal clear and to make clear, you're not aware of any conversations then that took place with the governor and any member of Barack Obama's transition team, at all?

MR. FITZGERALD: And what I simply said is you can read the complaint. I'm not going to sit here with a 76-page complaint and parse through it. That's all we're alleging. And I'm just -- I'm not going to start going down and saying, did anyone ever talk to anyone?

You can read what we allege in the complaint. It's pretty detailed. Look in the 76 pages. And if you don't see it, it's not there.

QUESTION: You talked about -- you talked about keeping your superiors informed as to what was going on, I'm assuming that means the attorney general.

In the briefings that President-elect Obama had had over the past week with various government departments, would it be possible for him to have been briefed on what was going on here with regard to this investigation?

MR. FITZGERALD: I -- I -- I -- I'm not going to comment on that. I'm not -- I'm not -- I'm not the briefer. I'm not at those meetings.

But I would simply say that this was very close hold in Washington, and on a need to know basis. So, I'm -- but I'm not going to -- I'm not the briefer, so I'm not going to represent what happens. But -- I'll leave it at that.

Comment: Note the stuttering in the second response. The U.S. Attorney is becoming uncomfortable with both the questions and his responses. What’s wrong with saying, “I assume the man about to become our President is told everything he needs to know as he prepares to assume leadership of our federal government.  And the pending arrest of the governor of a large state certainly falls into that category.”

So what does this official explanation about stopping a corruption crime spree in progress suggest?  Was it timed to aid a children’s hospital?  Stop an unidentified newspaper editor from potential unemployment? Circumvent some Illinois legislative misdeed? Stop the immediate and irrevocable appointment of a U.S. Senator to fill Obama’s seat?

That’s the official explanation, and the one ultimately accepted by the Chicago big media.  But is there a more complicated, yet cogent, back story?  Yes there is.