A blow for Illinois’s Blagojevich in corruption case

Under threat of lengthy jail time, his former chief of staff agreed on Wednesday to be a prosecution witness.

By MARK GUARINO  |  Christian Science Monitor Correspondent/ July 8, 2009 edition

Chicago — Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s campaign to clear his name of corruption charges suffered a major blow Wednesday when John Harris, his former chief of staff, entered a plea agreement with the US Attorney’s Office in Chicago.

Mr. Harris pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud, and he pledged cooperation with prosecutors in exchange for a lighter sentence if convicted.

Mr. Blagojevich is charged with 16 counts of corruption including racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud, extortion conspiracy, attempted extortion, and making false statements to federal agents. He has insisted he is innocent of all charges.

Harris served as Blagojevich’s chief of staff from late 2005 until last December. He and the governor are among six people charged in April with 19 counts of “pervasive fraud.”

The plea agreement is the first in this case, although political insiders say that between now and the trial’s opening day in June 2010 there probably will be more.

“[Blagojevich] will soon be the last man standing,” says Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association, a watchdog group in Chicago. Mr. Shaw, who was a long-time political reporter for WLS-TV, says “this case is over” due to a growing number of cooperating witnesses who were close to Blagojevich when he was governor.

Last month, Christopher Kelly, Blagojevich’s former adviser and chief fundraiser, was sentenced to 37 months in prison on federal tax fraud charges for concealing the use of corporate funds from a roofing company he owned to cover gambling debts. Mr. Kelly is also involved in a second case in which he is charged in a kickback scheme against United Airlines and American Airlines at O’Hare International Airport. The trial for that case starts in September.

Those cases were not connected to the Blagojevich indictments because they did not involve the misuse of public funds.

Prosecutors also have access to the possible cooperation of Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a top Blagojevich adviser and fundraiser who was convicted in June 2008 on 16 federal corruption charges for trading his clout.

Shaw says prosecutors “now have a litany of cooperating witnesses, people who were right there in the room as Senate seats were being bartered and contracts traded for contributions, and jobs and positions on boards were sold off for cash.”

“They’re all going to stand up, one by one, and paint a picture of the worst pay-to-play corruption this state has ever seen,” says Shaw.

Under the plea deal, Harris faces a maximum of 35 months in prison, providing the testimony he offers proves accurate. Without the plea arrangement, the maximum for the charge is 20 years. Randall Samborn, spokesman with the US Attorney’s Office, says as of Wednesday Harris “is the only one to plead guilty at this point.”

The plea agreement states that in 2008 Harris aided Blagojevich’s attempts to sell the US Senate seat vacated by President Obama. Harris also was alleged to have threatened the Chicago Tribune with the withholding of state funds if the newspaper did not fire editorial staffers critical of the governor. He also was charged with pressuring financial institutions that did business with the state to give his wife a job.

Messages left for Harris’s attorney and Blagojevich’s spokesperson were not returned at time of writing.

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