Should citizens of this state have a right to know whether their governor and his administration are under criminal investigation?
According to the governor, the answer is "no."
Around the same time as this year's campaign season moved into full swing the governor's state press operation stopped answering questions about whether the office had received subpoenas from federal or state prosecutors, or even about the existence of new or ongoing investigations.
Politically, that appeared to be a smart move. There are somewhere around nine or ten separate federal and state investigations of the governor's office right now (that we know of) and some of them are really starting to heat up, so it's natural that the subpoenas would be flying in the door. And it's also natural that the administration wouldn't want to confirm information that reporters had dug up. Without confirmations, some stories undoubtedly haven't been published or broadcast because reporters may not have had enough other sources.
But the governor's refusal to directly answer whether he is under investigation led to a bizarre reaction last week.
The Chicago Tribune reported that the governor's top legal advisor had sent a letter to a dozen state agencies requiring them to disclose all personnel records back to 2003, when the governor was sworn in. The order applied to everyone, all the way down to the lowliest interns.
The Tribune claimed that its sources said the letter was a result of a federal investigation into the governor's hiring practices. The probe goes back to at least last year, when the governor's office admitted that three agencies were subpoenaed by the feds (back when the governor's office was admitting those things). Since FBI agents don't usually just ask for government documents over a friendly cup of coffee at the local diner, we can safely assume that more subpoenas have been issued.
The Tribune story appeared the same day that Gov. Blagojevich was set to announce his new All Kids program, so he had no choice but to answer a few questions from the assembled throng of reporters.
His refusal to confirm or deny the existence of investigations and subpoenas put him in a bit of a tight spot, however. If the Tribune story was untrue (highly unlikely) he couldn't just denounce the paper because when a true story came along reporters would insist that he verify that one, too. And if the Tribune story was true (highly likely) he couldn't confirm it or risk putting his press staff in the same situation every time a reporter heard a rumor about a new subpoena.
Instead, he took a deep breath and blamed his troubles on...
Are you ready for this one?
Yes, George Ryan is to blame for an ever-widening federal probe into Rod Blagojevich's administration.
How, you may ask?
Let's allow the governor's own words to explain.
When asked about the letter written in response to the federal probe, the governor said it was "an example of what we’ve been doing for 3 years, and that is making sure that we clean up the old practices of the previous administration that had bloated state payrolls, incompetent employees, people hired for all the wrong reasons."
Yeah, I don't get it either.
I understand why the feds are keeping a close eye on Illinois. Our recent history justifies it. And you can certainly blame George Ryan for much of that.
But you'd think that if the Blagojevich administration was completely clean and the governor really was the "un-Ryan" the feds would have looked closely at those initial three state agencies, including the governor's own personnel office, then folded the books and gone home.
Instead, they apparently issued subpoenas for the hiring records of twelve more agencies.
And that's not George Ryan's fault.
The people should have a right to know as much about their government as possible, and that includes a right to know whether their federal government suspects their state government of being corrupt. Governor Blagojevich should reverse his decision to not confirm the existence of subpoenas and stop this ridiculous game of blaming George Ryan for everything that he screws up.
And, for his sake, I hope he's being a lot more honest with the US Attorney's office than he is with Illinois voters. Bad things can happen if he's not.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com