"It had better be a job where you can make some money."
That, apparently, was what Gov. Rod Blagojevich told Ali Ata about Ata's quest for a state job during Blagojevich's Navy Pier fundraiser in 2003 - an event that pulled in almost $4 million for the governor and appears to have put Blagojevich and his campaign fund in extreme legal jeopardy.
Ata, you most certainly know, pled guilty last week. He finally admitted that he got his job running the Illinois Finance Authority as a direct result of campaign contributions to Gov. Blagojevich. Ata resigned his post under fire after an Auditor General's Report found some serious problems with the IFA. The Authority tried to give him a golden parachute - a three-year contract that looked like hush money back then and looks even worse today - but that was withdrawn after a huge media uproar.
Some of the Ata plea details are right out of a gangster movie.
Back in September of 2002, during the heat of Blagojevich's first campaign for governor, Ata allegedly arrived at Tony Rezko's office with yet another huge campaign contribution for Blagojevich, handed Rezko the $25,000 check in an envelope, was then ushered into a conference room where, lo and behold, there sat Rod Blagojevich himself. Rezko, the ever loyal birddog, then allegedly dropped the check on the conference table in front of Blagojevich and told the candidate that Ata wanted a job after the election. Blagojevich allegedly "expressed his pleasure," acknowledged that Ata had been a "good supporter" and a "good friend" and asked Rezko if he had talked to Ata about a job. Rezko allegedly said he had.
All told, the Blagojevich campaign squeezed $65,000 out of this pigeon, which may be why Blagojevich made that wisecrack about getting Ata a big-money job during his Navy Pier funder. They plucked him clean.
Rezko allegedly shook Ata down for another $125,000 in cash bribes during 2003 and 2004. Ata allegedly paid the cash because he was desperate to keep a state lease on one of his properties. Rezko was his alleged fixer. But we don't know yet whether Rezko kept all of the alleged ill-gotten gain for himself, or redistributed some of the money to others up or down the food chain. I shudder to think.
When he was forced out of the Illinois Finance Authority, Ata strenuously and repeatedly denied that his campaign contributions to Blagojevich had anything whatsoever to do with his appointment. He told the same thing to the feds when they came calling. But that story didn't last.
"[Ata] did receive something for those contributions," last week's plea agreement reads, "specifically employment with a state agency." That's the US Attorney talking, not Ata. Kaboom.
Combine Ata's guilty plea with Joe Cari's statement under oath in the Tony Rezko corruption trial that Blagojevich boasted openly of trading contracts and appointments for contributions, and the drug-addled Stu Levine's testimony about how Blagojevich spoke of the same thing to him (while telling Levine to never speak of the topic with him again and to go through Rezko from then on), plus numerous other allegations that have been bandied about over the years (including Ald. Dick Mell's withdrawn charge that the administration was selling appointments for contributions) and a strong case is being built against the governor and his campaign fund.
In fact, this looks like something right out of the federales' George Ryan playbook. Remember, the US Attorney indicted and convicted Ryan's campaign fund under the RICO statutes well before they indicted Ryan himself. It's deja vu all over again.
Predictably, the governor's office flatly denies that any shenanigans took place. This is the same governor, however, who continues to deny that he is "Public Official A," despite all evidence to the contrary. Some of the allegations may be overblown, many may even be outright false, but once you start lying in this business you won't be believed about anything, and this administration has collectively been a serial prevaricator.
Ata's guilty plea has shocked even some of the most hardened, cynical Statehouse types like little I've ever seen before. And when the shock wore off, a word started spreading through the crowd that had until now only been whispered on the fringes.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.