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Obama, Staff No Improper Dealings With Ill. Gov.


This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer. President-Elect Barack Obama is vacationing in Hawaii this week, but before he left he was interviewed by federal agents investigating corruption allegations against Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. This revelation is included in an internal report from the Obama transition office. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper has details.

DAVID SCHAPER: In announcing charges against Blagojevich December 9th, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago said the governor was looking for a cabinet appointment, ambassadorship, or a high-paying nonprofit job from the Obama administration in exchange for putting whomever the president-elect wanted in the Senate seat. But not only is there no evidence the Obama transition team knew what Blagojevich allegedly wanted, the transition staff says no one knew anything about a scheme by the governor.

Incoming White House council Greg Craig says only one person on the transition team had any contact with Blagojevich and his staff, that's Congressman Rahm Emanuel, the incoming White House chief of staff. He says Emanuel talked with Blagojevich once or twice and with the governor's chief staff four times, and neither of them asked Emanuel for any kind of deal for the Senate seat.

GREG CRAIG: He is very clear that there was no discussion of a seat in the cabinet, there was no discussion of a 501c4 or a private-sector position or any other personal benefit to the governor in exchange for the Senate appointment. He's very clear on that.

SCHAPER: Nevertheless, Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald asked that Craig delay releasing this internal report until yesterday after federal investigators had a chance to interview President-Elect Obama, his advisor Valerie Jarrett and Rahm Emanuel. Craig says the U.S. Attorney's office gave them the go-ahead to release this report, which he says reiterates what Barack Obama has been saying all along.

CRAIG: We are satisfied there was nothing inappropriate that took place here, either in terms of conversations, or communications, or contacts between transition officials and the governor's office.

SCHAPER: Transition lawyer Greg Craig says Emanuel only gave Blagojevich a list of names that the president-elect found qualified for this Senate seat. He then added a couple of additional names, but other than that Craig says neither Mr. Obama, nor Emanuel, nor anyone else expressed a preference for any one candidate. Craig's report does detail a conversation Jarrett had with the union official who suggested Blagojevich is interested in becoming Secretary of Health and Human Services, a suggestion both laughed off as ridiculous. But Craig says Jarrett had no idea Blagojevich might be using the Senate seat as a bargaining chip to get the cabinet post.

Craig's report also indicated that Barack Obama's close friend Dr. Eric Whitaker had also been approached by a deputy governor about the Senate seat, but again the reports says there was no suggestion that the governor wanted something for it. In fact, Craig says nobody within the Obama transition team had any idea Blagojevich was trying to cash in on his power to appoint Illinois' next U.S. senator.

CRAIG: No one in the Obama circle was aware of what was going on in the governor's office or the governor's mind until such time as he was arrested. They found out about what the governor was doing at the same time the rest of the American public found out about it.

SCHAPER: U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald seems to back up that claim. In the criminal complaint charging Blagojevich, the governor is quoted telling his chief of staff, in a conversation recorded by the FBI, that in exchange for the Senate seat, the Obama team wasn't, quote, "willing to give me anything except appreciation. Blank them." Blagojevich says he has done nothing wrong and will fight the charges.

Still the internal report may not silence those critics who believe the president-elect's transition team has not been forthcoming enough in telling what it knew about Blagojevich's alleged scheme to make some money off the Senate seat. But Len Cavise, a criminal law professor at DePaul University in Chicago says the report should be taken at face value. He says it would make no sense for the Obama team to be deceptive now.

LEN CAVISE: They had better admit some culpability if it's there because the chances are it's going to come out, and it may come out before a grand jury.

SCHAPER: Cavise notes the U.S. Attorney's investigation continued. And though their own internal report clears the transition team of wrongdoing, it still poses a distraction to the president-elect as he prepares to take office.

David Schaper, NPR New, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.