Blagojevich ruling draws clear line between political horse-trading, criminal conduct

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It’s the most common refrain of Illinois politicians caught with their hands in the public cookie jar: “This is how politics is done.”

And until now, federal prosecutors could knock that argument out in “two seconds,” one of their former colleagues said Wednesday.

But the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals might have changed the game “immensely” in a decision that threw out five of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s 18 criminal convictions, former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer said.

The opinion, written by U.S. Appellate Court Judge Frank Easterbrook, seems to have drawn the clearest line yet between criminal conduct and old-fashioned political horse-trading.

However, “they drew the line pretty low,” according to Cramer, now the head of the Chicago office for Kroll Inc.

“It does let politicians and prosecutors and the public know what they can expect from their politicians,” Cramer said. “Unfortunately, you can’t expect much.”

The court said, “a proposal to trade one public act for another, a form of logrolling, is fundamentally unlike the swap of an official act for a private payment.” It went on to say, “governance would hardly be possible without these accommodations.”

A “common exercise in logrolling” is a proposal to appoint one person to one office in exchange for someone else’s promise to appoint a different person to a different office, the court said. Among its hypotheticals were references to Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama.

“The current Secretary of State was appointed to that position from a seat in the Senate,” Easterbrook wrote, “and it wouldn’t surprise us if this happened at least in part because he had performed a political service for the president.”

The takeaway for politicians is, “don’t take any money,” Cramer said.

But they shouldn’t take any houses, either, according to Ann Lousin, a professor at the John Marshall Law School. Basically, the court seemed to warn politicians away from private transactions in exchange for public actions.

Lousin said the three justices who heard Blagojevich’s appeal “made a very good attempt” at drawing the line, but it’s still not perfectly clear.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to be possible to have a bright red line,” Lousin said.

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