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How to Handle Scandal: Rod Blagojevich

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What we know:  Scandal and Rod Blagojevich have been linked almost from the moment he took office as the governor of Illinois in 2003. Just months after assuming power, he become the target of several state and federal investigations linked to allegations of illegal activities with respect to state hiring, board appointments, contracting and fundraising.

Sometimes events in the news – no matter how distasteful  – find their way into the classroom. This may happen due to student curiosity or lack of understanding, or because a scandalous event has far-reaching impact. When this happens, it's important to decide what you can and cannot say as an educator.

Individual schools and districts may have policies guiding teacher responses to sensitive issues, and we urge you to consult with an administrator before addressing these topics. At the very least, however, we'd like to help you fully understand the story. How to Handle Scandal features will appear when the news dictates and will be updated as details change.

As federal prosecutor Ryan Fitzgerald conducted an investigation into influence-peddling and pay-to-play schemes at the highest levels of state government, he became aware of a plot to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated due to the election of Barack Obama to the office of President of the United States. FBI wiretaps caught Blagojevich boasting about the authority to appoint anyone to the seat, and the fact that he could benefit from it.

After realizing that a U.S. Senatorial seat was on the verge of being sold, Fitzgerald ordered the arrests of Blagojevich and his chief of staff John Harris at their homes in 2008. 

The fallout:  Staunchly defending himself against the allegations, Blagojevich refused to step down as governor. Almost defiantly, he made his appointment to the Senate, which led many to ponder accepting the appointment. After several weeks of controversy, during which time the Illinois Secretary of the State refused to certify his appointment and hearings were held in the Senate, Roland Burris was welcomed into Congress.

Despite his claims of innocence, Blagojevich was subsequently removed from office, and the Illinois State Legislature banned him from ever being able to hold public office in the state again. In an attempt to repair his public image, he went on a media tour, appearing on several television shows. He agreed to appear on NBC’s “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here” reality show, but because he was forced to surrender his passport due to his criminal charges, he was unable to travel to the destination shoot. His wife Patti was cast in his stead.

In all, 15 people have been charged in connection with the corruption in Blagojevich’s administration. In August of 2010 he was convicted of lying. A mistrial was declared on the remaining charges, however. It was nearly one year later, in June of 2011, when he was convicted on 17 of the remaining 20 charges and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Among the crimes he was found to have committed:

  • Plotting to extort the Tribune Company by withholding state funds unless it fired certain members of the editorial board who had been critical of the governor;
  • Plotting to obtain a campaign contribution in exchange for signing a bill to divert casino gambling revenues to the horse racing industry; and
  • Plotting to "obtain a personal benefit in exchange for his appointment to fill [President-elect Barack Obama’s] vacant seat in the United States Senate."

Blagojevich becomes the fifth Governor of Illinois to make headlines for corruption, according to  ABC News.

  • In April of 2006, George Ryan was convicted of corruption charges, including steering state business in exchange for bribes. Ryan is currently serving a six-and-a-half year prison sentence.
  • Dan Walker was governor from 1973 until 1977. He served 17 months of a seven-year prison sentence for a conviction on fraudulent business practices after he left office.
  • Otto Kerner was indicted and convicted of taking bribes in the form of racetrack stock while he served as governor of Illinois in the late 1960s. Kerner served three years in prison.
  • William Stratton was indicted on tax charges for illegally using campaign funds. Stratton was acquitted of those charges. He served as governor from 1953 to 1961.

Potential issues to discuss in class:

  • Should Blagojevich go to jail for his crimes? If you were a judge, what sentence would you give him?
  • What impact does Blagojevich’s case have on public trust of elected officials?
  • Is what Blagojevich did worse than what Congressman Anthony Weiner did (texting nude photos of himself to women)? Why or why not?
  • What do you make of the fact that there has been a lengthy history of political corruption in Illinois state government?
  • Would you vote for Blagojevich, if he were allowed to run for office again?

Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
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