Rod Blagojevich left the room unhappy. This was back when he was still governor, and two top aides had just informed Blagojevich that he wouldn’t be able to satisfy an alderman’s request to exempt an Illinois National Guard member from going to war with the rest of his unit.
When the door shut behind Blagojevich, John Harris, his then-chief of staff, turned to the other top aide and said, “See what I have to deal with every day?”
That story was cited by U.S. District Judge James Zagel in sentencing Harris last week to just 10 days in prison for his role in the corruption scandal that brought down the governor.
But it was just one of many such tales outlined in dozens of letters written by supporters who urged Zagel to go easy on Harris, who was arrested with his now-imprisoned boss in 2008.
The letters, obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times, were written by some of the biggest names in Illinois politics, including former U.S. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert. They offer new insights into how difficult it could be to work for the disgraced former governor and add to the already-colorful lore surrounding him.
Once a high-ranking aide to former Mayor Richard M. Daley, Harris, 50, copped a guilty plea to a lesser charge than he originally faced and testified against his old boss at both of his trials.
Beside vouching for Harris’ character, many of the letter writers wrote almost as much about Blagojevich, with some suggesting that life in the Blagojevich administration was so crazy that Harris could hardly have avoided getting into trouble.
Blagojevich’s last chief of staff, Clayton Harris III (no relation), said John Harris was “caught between his superior and chaos.” He told Zagel about “an episode where I was directed to fire the entire legal department because they lacked the professionalism that the governor believed should have been exhibited.” He said Blagojevich ordered him to hire an unemployed lawyer “he met in line at Starbucks to be chief legal counsel of the state of Illinois!”
Clayton Harris said he didn’t follow either directive from BlagoÂjevich but “did allow him to believe” that he would do so because that, he said, was the best way to refocus the governor’s attention on more important matters.
Frank Kruesi, who worked with John Harris in the Daley administration, wrote to the judge, saying he had encouraged Harris to leave City Hall to take the job as Blagojevich’s chief of staff in 2005 but felt the move put Harris under “peculiar pressures” that he “attempted to deflect, or absorb.”
“I recognize that I underestimated the extent of the contamination that permeated the governor’s inner circle and put John in a position where he attempted to work for a boss who was almost unimaginatively venal and irrationally demanding,” wrote Kruesi, who was Daley’s CTA chief and main Washington lobbyist.
Larry Trent, who served as Blagojevich’s state police director, wrote to Zagel about the effort to keep a National Guardsman from having to be deployed with his unit to Iraq.
Trent said Blagojevich handed Harris a letter from an unidentified alderman with the request and that, when Blagojevich was told he couldn’t do that, the governor became “displeased.”
Though Trent said he and Harris shot down that idea, in other cases the best that aides were able to do was to “placate the former governor and do something without doing what he really wanted.”
Trent offered the example of Blagojevich’s proposal to offer state troopers to help deal with a crime wave in Chicago in the summer of 2008. Trent’s letter reveals new details of Blagojevich’s plan, which was criticized at the time as a political stunt.
Trent said Blagojevich “wanted to ride with the group” of state troopers – which he nicknamed “The Rough Riders” – into violence-torn parts of the city. Blagojevich, a fan of old Westerns, also wanted to outfit the new force with “some special, provocative and recognizable apparel.”
Trent credited Harris with making sure the effort was scaled back significantly.
John Schmidt, a former Daley chief of staff, vouched for Harris by telling Zagel he believed “the negative characteristics of the [Blagojevich] administration were the result of personal qualities of the governor that no chief of staff or other staff person could alter.”
“I do not question John’s acknowledgement that his own participation crossed the legal line, but I also recognize the difficulty of drawing that line as a subordinate,” Schmidt wrote.
Hastert didn’t refer to Blagojevich in his brief letter lauding Harris. The note from the Republican leader was written on “Office of the Former Speaker” letterhead.
But some close aides to Blagojevich didn’t hesitate to rip the former governor in offering support for Harris.
Carol Ronen, who at one time was a Blagojevich friend and aide, said Harris’ “complex job was made even more challenging by virtue of reporting to a governor who was disengaged in the routine and normal operations of state government.”
And Blagojevich’s longtime executive assistant, Mary Stewart, said he was “very difficult to work with and for” and “basically would wear a person down” – for instance, by peppering Harris with calls early in the morning, late at night and on weekends and holidays.
“Had the former governor just listened to John more, I just know in my heart that the outcome for the administration would have been better,” wrote Stewart, who also worked for Blagojevich when he was a state representative and congressman.