The NYT piece by David Johnston raises some interesting questions and provides some useful answers about legal issues in the Blagojevich case. The article focuses on the difficulty of defining the “difference between criminality and political deal making,” which is an area that has been interesting to me. As the article points out, everyone knows that politicians take official actions in return for campaign contributions. I’ve wondered whether Blagojevich’s only real offense was to make the quid pro quo explicit.
The analysis in the article confirms that in fact Blagojevich would be in the clear if he had managed to keep his wheeling and dealing out of the investigators’ earshot. It also suggests that while explicitly offering a seat to a candidate in return for campaign contributions is illegal, it would be “easier to prosecute” if the benefits he was to receive were personal favors like cash or a job.
The fundamental issue raised by the article is that so far we only know of Blagojevich telling his aides that he wanted something in return for the seat — nothing we know of has him on the phone with a candidate making an offer. It’s possible, the article suggests, that the juiciest stuff about him wanting something in return for the Senate seat will amount to “just talk” and any prosecution will have to go forward on other material.
All of this suggests that this is another case (like Microsoft, like Enron) where the main lesson for other people who might want to bend rules in the future is to be smarter about communication. Blagojevich could easily have carried out a sale of the office with impunity if he had done it more subtly. So: let the sale of government offices continue, but let’s just be sure to not do it in such a crass and open way.