Tuesday, December 23, 2008

No Improper Contact With Governor - New York Times

An internal report issued on Tuesday by lawyers for President-elect Barack Obama found that his top advisers had numerous contacts with the office of Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich and attempted to guide his choice to fill a vacant Illinois Senate seat, but none of the talks suggested an attempt to play along with the governor’s alleged attempts to sell the seat.

Rahm Emanuel, the new White House chief of staff, had two conversations with Mr. Blagojevich and four calls with John Harris, the governor’s chief of staff, about the Senate seat. He provided a list of six names of Illinois Democrats whom Mr. Obama favored to fill his Senate seat.

“At no time in the discussion of the Senate seat or of possible replacements did the president-elect hear of a suggestion that the governor expected a personal benefit in return for making this appointment to the Senate,” said the report, which was written by Gregory Craig, the new White House counsel.

In a question-answer session just after the report’s release, Mr. Craig described the contacts between Mr. Emanuel and the governor’s chief of staff as “totally appropriate and acceptable” as well as “predictable.” In his conversations with the governor in the days immediately after the election, the report said, Mr. Emanuel was pushing Valerie Jarrett for the Senate seat. Mr. Emanuel said he made the recommendation before he knew that Mr. Obama “had ruled out communicating a preference for any one candidate.”

Ms. Jarrett, a close friend of the Obama family and a senior adviser to the campaign, removed her name from consideration for the Senate seat so she could work in the White House as a senior adviser to Mr. Obama.

Ms. Jarrett had a conversation with a union official, who told her that Mr. Blagojevich had expressed interest in becoming health and human services secretary in the Obama cabinet, Mr. Craig said. At the time of the conversation, on Nov. 7, Ms. Jarrett was still being mentioned as a candidate for Mr. Obama’s Senate seat.

However, Mr. Craig said, the union official was not acting as an emissary for the governor, and Ms. Jarrett told the union official it was “ridiculous” for the governor to even think of getting such a post, given the investigations swirling around him long before the latest controversy erupted.

President-elect Barack Obama greeted well-wishers after working out at a Marine base in Honolulu on Tuesday

The report, which was made public on Tuesday afternoon in the form of a five-page memorandum to the president-elect from Mr. Craig, showed more involvement from Mr. Emanuel in filling the Senate seat than had previously been known.

But Mr. Craig said there was no evidence of wrongdoing or suggestions that Mr. Emanuel was asked to provide favors to the governor in exchange for the Senate seat.

The report said that Mr. Emanuel “discussed the merits of potential candidates and the strategic benefit that each candidate would bring to the Senate seat.”

Mr. Emanuel gave the names of four Democrats from Illinois whom Mr. Obama “considered to be highly qualified,” including Dan Hynes, Tammy Duckworth, Representative Jan Schakowsky and Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. In later telephone calls, Mr. Emanuel also mentioned the names of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Ms. Cheryle Jackson.

“Mr. Harris did not make any effort to extract a personal benefit for the Governor in any of these conversations,” Mr. Craig wrote in the report. “There was no discussion of a cabinet position, of 501c(4), of a private sector position or of any other personal benefit to the governor in exchange for the Senate appointment.”

Mr. Obama, who is on vacation with his family here in Hawaii, is not planning to answer questions or speak publicly about the report.

The report, and the timing of its release, was a product of cooperation from the office of Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the United States attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, who is leading the federal investigation into Mr. Blagojevich. But according to people familiar with the report, lawyers who compiled the Obama review did not have access to wiretapped telephone conversations between Obama aides and the governor’s office.

Last week, Mr. Fitzgerald asked the Obama transition team to delay the release of its report so prosecutors could interview witnesses in the Blagojevich investigation. The office had yet to complete its interviews late last week, people familiar with the case said, and asked the Obama team not to release its report on Monday.

At a news conference three days after the election, Mr. Obama said he was staying out of the matter. “There are going to be a lot of good choices out there,” he said, “but it is the governor’s decision to make, not mine.”

Mr. Craig has worked with the United States attorney’s office, which has repeatedly suggested that Mr. Obama’s staff is not suspected of any wrongdoing.

The Obama report may not be the final word on the case. The review was compiled from memory by Mr. Obama’s aides, rather than from recordings of any phone calls.

The taped conversations, which were picked up through the court-approved wiretapping of Mr. Blagojevich and his chief of staff, Mr. Harris, will not become public until the case moves through the courts or goes to trial.

Asked whether he thought the prosecutor should release the tapes, Mr. Craig declined to answer, declaring that the matter was the prosecutor’s business. As for whether any new guidelines might be necessary for Obama staff members regarding whom they talk to, Mr. Craig dismissed the idea, saying no new rules were needed because the few conversations that occurred with the governor’s people were “completely innocent, completely appropriate.”
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