Dec 13, 2008

World - US;Obama deals with Blagojevich fallout

Suzanne Goldenberg

Washington: Barack Obama denied on Thursday that any member of his staff had ever tried to strike a deal with the scandal-tainted Illinois Governor accused of trying to sell Mr. Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat. But in his most expansive comments to date on the scandal, the President-elect did not entirely dispel lingering questions about contacts between his staff and the Governor, Rod Blagojevich.

Mr. Obama said he had not spoken to Mr. Blagojevich and was confident that no one from his White House transition team had been involved in inappropriate haggling over his replacement in the Senate. “What I am absolutely certain about is that my office had absolutely no involvement in any deal-making about my Senate seat. That I am absolutely certain about,” he told a press conference on Thursday.

However, Mr. Obama admitted that he still needed to “gather all the facts” about the nature and extent of his transition team’s contacts with the Governor. He said he would make that information available in the coming days.

The President-elect had hoped on Thursday to focus on his promised health reforms. But instead, he was forced for a third successive day to deflect questions about the widening scandal.

The Governor, who has sole authority under Illinois law to appoint Mr. Obama’s successor, is accused by the FBI of trying to extract payment in return for backing a preferred candidate or contenders for the Senate seat. On Wednesday Jesse Jackson Jr, a congressman and son of the civil rights leader, acknowledged he was the person identified in the FBI wiretaps as “Senate candidate five”. Mr. Jackson denied wrongdoing.

The FBI has said Mr. Obama and his team are not accused of wrongdoing in the scandal involving Mr. Blagojevich. But the President-elect has faced criticism since the scandal erupted for his failure to condemn Mr. Blagojevich in more forceful terms. There have also been questions about Mr. Obama’s decision to endorse the Governor’s run for re-election in 2006, when he already faced allegations of corruption.

Mr. Obama took steps to speak out against Mr. Blagojevich in clearer terms on Thursday. “I think the public trust has been violated,” he said. “This Senate seat does not belong to any politician to trade.” He repeated his demand that the Governor stand down.

Aides, consultants and fundraisers for Mr. Obama figure prominently in the FBI affidavit — despite the agency’s disavowal of any wrongdoing by Mr. Obama’s team.

The affidavit quotes from wiretaps showing Mr. Blagojevich erupting in rage over the Obama camp’s refusal to go along with his scheme to obtain payment for making the Senate appointment.

Mr. Obama noted that frustration on Thursday, saying that kind of deal-making had no part in the new politics that have been at the core of his campaign. “That would be a violation of everything that this campaign has been about,” he said. But he did not address the question of whether his camp had at any point notified the authorities of Mr. Blagojevich’s efforts to extract bribes for naming the next Illinois Senator.

Mr. Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod said on November 23 the President-elect had spoken to Mr. Blagojevich about the Senate seat and other issues. The campaign issued a press release late on Tuesday saying Mr. Axelrod had misspoken.

Mr. Blagojevich has clung to office despite pressure to quit. On Thursday the Illinois Attorney-General Lisa Madigan told CNN that she would move to have the Governor declared unfit for office if the State Legislature did not impeach him.

A session is scheduled for Monday at which leaders of the Legislature are to strip Mr. Blagojevich of his power to pick a new U.S. Senator. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008

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