Federal investigators didn't make it easy for Governor Rod Blagojevich last week.
On his big day, when he tried to turn around his political fortunes with "All Kids," a major new public health policy initiative formally unveiled in front of a joint session of the General Assembly with most of the state's media in attendance, the feds dropped yet another subpoena.
This time, it was the Illinois Department of Transportation's turn. Prosecutors demanded hiring records going back three years.
The Chicago Tribune disclosed the day before the governor's speech that the feds had widened their probe of the Department of Children and Family Services with a fresh subpoena of hiring records and that federal prosecutors had sent an unusual letter claiming that "the government is conducting a grand jury investigation regarding allegations of criminal wrongdoing of Victor Roberson, Robin Staggers and Joe Cini in relation to public corruption."
Joe Cini is the governor's patronage chief who comes out of Alderman Dick Mell's ward organization. Cini is highly regarded by many insiders, but despised by at least some current and former state agency personnel directors for allegedly pressuring them on questionable hiring. Roberson is one of Cini's top aides. Robin Staggers is a patronage person assigned to DCFS. Staggers and two of her aides have reportedly been placed on administrative leave.
The disclosure of that federal letter went off like a bomb at the Statehouse.
While falling short of being an actual "target letter" - when the government informs someone that they are the target of an investigation - it was close enough for many. The feds rarely tip their hand, but for whatever reason they have seemed unusually willing to show their cards when it comes to this governor. It wasn't that long ago, remember, that the feds did everything but name Governor Blagojevich and his two top fundraisers, Chris Kelly and Tony Rezko, in negotiated guilty pleas related to a corruption investigation of the teachers pension fund.
The IDOT subpoena demanded hiring records dating back to several months before the governor took office, as did the DCFS subpoena. It's possible that investigators may be attempting to compare patronage procedures between the Blagojevich and George Ryan administrations.
By most accounts, Governor Blagojevich delivered one of the best speeches of his career last week, omitting his often inane jokes and focusing on the task at hand, promoting himself as a champion of healthcare rights for all. But his message was completely stepped on by the feds, showing once again how difficult it will be to right his upside-down poll numbers.
The governor appears to be hoping that his All Kids program, which would subsidize healthcare for thousands of middle class children who are now going without, will convince voters to give him another look. After almost a solid year of unremitting bad publicity and resulting low poll numbers, the governor needs to wave something big and flashy in front of voters' eyes to make them think that maybe he's not so bad after all - or is, at least, worthy of reconsideration.
Then again, a poll conducted by the Tribune earlier this month found that just 22 percent of voters said the governor had lived up to his promise to clean up government, while 57 percent of independents believed Blagojevich "had not fulfilled his commitment to clean up corruption and cronyism."
A disturbingly large 52 percent of independent voters said Blagojevich was "motivated by personal interests," and 44 percent of all voters agreed. Subsequent media disclosures that ten percent of Governor and Mrs. Blagojevich's total gross household income last year came from political insider Tony Rezko will probably only reinforce that belief.
Pushing programs like All Kids may, indeed, may help the governor make some progress with voters. But the people I've talked to on both sides of the aisle who have analyzed polling data and monitored focus groups universally agree that voters feel betrayed by a self-described reformer who didn't reform. So even if the governor gets a second look he has to eventually begin addressing this very real problem.
Insiders say the governor is reluctant to dump or even distance himself from the politically connected insiders who helped get him elected and who have since raised huge mountains of cash for his campaign fund and, in Rezko's case, even helped pad his family's personal bank account. Until he makes a complete break with those people, it will be impossible to even start convincing voters that this governor is clean.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at capitolfax.blogspot.com