Blagojevich denies check’s connection

By The Associated Press

CHICAGO – For months, Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been fending off accusations he bungled government programs and awarded jobs and contracts to contributors and cronies. But suddenly, one issue has cut through the clutter: a $1,500 gift to one of his daughters.

The check came from a lifelong Blagojevich friend, and it arrived soon after the friend’s wife got a state job.

The governor has said he is unsure whether it was a birthday gift for one daughter or a christening gift for another, but he insisted it had no connection to the job. At the same time, he acknowledged asking his chief of staff to help the woman.

With just weeks to go before Election Day, the $1,500 check has gotten voters’ attention in a way some of the other allegations – involving audits, contracts and bureaucratic procedure – haven’t.

“People think, `My kid never got $1,500; there must be something wrong here,”‘ said Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Blagojevich, a Democrat running for a second term, got elected four years ago as a reformer promising to clean up state government, but his administration has been mired in controversy for doling out jobs and contracts to the politically connected.

The race is playing out against a backdrop of political corruption, with convictions at Chicago’s City Hall, an FBI raid on Cook County’s government offices and the recent sentencing of Blagojevich’s predecessor, Republican Gov. George Ryan, to more than six years in prison for graft.

Blagojevich’s GOP opponent, Judy Baar Topinka, is using the $1,500 check to paint him as corrupt. She is running an ad that shows Blagojevich fumbling to answer questions about the money. And at a recent debate, her supporters held up huge, fake checks and shouted, “Hooray for birthdays!”

While it is not illegal in itself for Blagojevich’s family to accept a gift from a friend, it would be if the money was a thank-you for the new job.

The governor’s office initially said the check was a gift for his older daughter, Amy, on her seventh birthday in 2003. Blagojevich later told reporters it might have been a gift for his younger daughter, Annie, who was christened about the same time.

Blagojevich said there is nothing odd about his close friend Michael Ascaridis giving such a large gift. At the same time, pleading a faulty memory, he would not say whether Ascaridis has given similar gifts in the past.

Ascaridis has told the Chicago Tribune, which first reported the gift Sept. 10, that the money had no connection to his wife’s new state job.

Still, the notion of a $1,500 check for a child seems fishy to some voters.

“You can go buy her something, or a gift card or whatever,” said Matthew Sardo, owner of a Chicago comic book shop.

Chicagoan Robert Douglas said he doesn’t believe Blagojevich, especially given Illinois’ tawdry history of political corruption.

“Every time I look around, another politician is doing something,” the 48-year-old customer service representative said. “Look at George Ryan – they finally caught up with him.”

Blagojevich has not been charged with any crime, but U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said this summer that he is investigating “very serious allegations of endemic hiring fraud” in the Blagojevich administration.

Also, the state auditor has issued report after report alleging mismanagement by Blagojevich – including spending $1 million on a prescription-drug program that violates federal law and agreeing to import foreign flu vaccine even after being told the vaccine would not be allowed into the country.

The Blagojevich administration has denied any wrongdoing, saying any management problems were minor flaws in ambitious attempts to improve the lives of Illinoisans. Blagojevich’s defenders also note that he helped pass some of the most important ethics legislation in Illinois history.

Pollster Del Ali said the check furor might sway voters in a tight race. But this one isn’t close, with the polls sometimes showing Blagojevich with a double-digit lead. “I don’t think this thing is going to stick at all,” Ali said.

R. O’Donnell, who owns a Chicago media public relations company, said the gift doesn’t matter to him, and he plans to vote for Blagojevich.

“His record speaks,” O’Donnell said.