Fri, Jan 02, 2009 - Page 7 News List

Senate seat scandal set to haunt Obama

UNAPPETIZING While the US president-elect is not accused of any wrongdoing, his incoming chief of staff has come under fire for being connected to Rod Blagojevich

AFP , CHICAGO

The scandal surrounding the senate seat of president-elect Barack Obama looked set to shadow his first months in office after prosecutors on Wednesday asked for more time to bring charges against the governor accused of trying to sell the coveted post.

The motion came a day after Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich defied Democratic party leaders by appointing a respected African American statesman to the vacated seat.

Senate Democrats have vowed to block the appointment, saying former Illinois attorney general Roland Burris would “serve under a shadow and be plagued by questions of impropriety,” but it is unclear if they have the legal right to do so. Burris vowed on Wednesday not to “create a scene” in Washington but showed his determination to fight for the seat by filing suit with the Illinois Supreme Court in an attempt to force the secretary of state to certify his appointment papers.

Senate Democrats were at work on contingency plans that included having armed guards ready to block Burris from entering the senate floor without certification and preventing him from casting votes until the conclusion of a lengthy investigation by the rules committee. The legal battle will be an unwelcome distraction from the task of passing a much-needed economic stimulus package and may also be politically risky given there are currently no black senators.

While Obama joined senate leaders in calling again for the Democratic governor to step aside and allow a successor untainted by scandal to make the appointment, Blagojevich continued to loudly proclaim his innocence.

Blagojevich’s lawyer has aggressively fought an inquiry by state lawmakers into whether there are sufficient grounds for removing the governor through impeachment and it could be weeks or months until state lawmakers reach a final decision.

Leaving the senate seat in limbo will also weaken the Democratic majority as Obama prepares to fight for an aggressive legislative agenda after taking office on Jan. 20.

While Obama is not accused of any wrongdoing and said an internal review found his team had no “inappropriate” contacts with the governor’s office, his incoming chief of staff has come under fire for discussing the seat with Blagojevich.

More details could be revealed as early as next week if a judge allows prosecutors to release transcripts of FBI wiretaps to the impeachment inquiry in which Blagojevich allegedly discusses how he can profit from the senate appointment.

Partial transcripts released in the 76-page criminal complaint showed that Obama’s staff were offering nothing more than “appreciation” to Blagojevich — much to the foul-mouthed frustration of the governor, who wanted a cabinet post at the very least. US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald indicated in the motion filed on Wednesday that more people could eventually be charged in the case, which accuses Blagojevich and his chief of staff of engaging in a years-long pattern of “pay-to-play” politics in which he traded state contracts for campaign contributions.

That could return the case to national headlines and reveal more unappetizing details about the state of politics in Obama’s home state.

Fitzgerald asked a federal judge to give him until April 7 to seek an indictment from a grand jury so his team would have time to pour through thousands of intercepted conversations and interview witnesses who have come forward in the wake of Blagojevich’s Dec. 9 arrest.

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