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Gov. Pritzker shrugs off secretly wire-tapped Blagojevich chats: ‘There were hundreds of people who were recorded’

The Democratic governor was recorded years ago laughing it up with then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich about possible successors for Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat and critiquing the field for an African-American to be appointed.

Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, left, speaks to reporters outside his home Wednesday; Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right, meets with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Thursday.
Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, left, speaks to reporters outside his home Wednesday; Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right, meets with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Thursday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times; Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Insisting “what happened more than ten years ago has nothing to do with where we are today,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Thursday that corruption weary Illinoisans should trust his reform credentials – and disregard past conversations with Rod Blagojevich.

“There were hundreds of people who were recorded, to be clear,” Pritzker said at an unrelated Chicago news conference on Thursday morning.

The Democratic governor was recorded by the FBI years ago laughing it up with then-Gov. Blagojevich about possible successors to then President-elect Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate and critiquing the field of African-Americans who he thought could be appointed.

Pritzker has had to defend himself against the secretly recorded conversations before, including during his gubernatorial campaign.

But he’s facing questions about the 2008 conversation all over again after he issued an angry statement this week, denouncing President Donald Trump for releasing Blagojevich from prison.

“President Trump has abused his pardon power in inexplicable ways to reward his friends and condone corruption, and I deeply believe this pardon sends the wrong message at the wrong time,” Pritzker said earlier this week.

Trump did not pardon Blagojevich, but he did commute his sentence.

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich greets supporters after a news conference outside the family’s Ravenswood Manor home Wednesday.
Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich greets supporters after a news conference outside the family’s Ravenswood Manor home Wednesday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Blagojevich is one of four Illinois governors to serve time in prison — and Trump’s clemency on Tuesday once again put the spotlight on the state’s history of corruption. And a sprawling federal investigation into elected officials in Illinois isn’t helping the state’s image.

But Pritzker said Thursday that he should be judged by the present, not the past.

“And let’s also make sure we also understand, what happened more than ten years ago has nothing to do with where we are today in this state,” he said. “I think we ought to be focusing on the challenges of today and those include challenges around the budget and challenges around addressing corruption that exists still in this state.”

Pritzker has called for an end to the “revolving door” that allows lawmakers to become lobbyists as soon as they leave office and to stop state legislators from lobbying other governmental bodies.

Speaking with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Thursday afternoon, the governor was asked if any ethical provisions he supports might directly impact Blagojevich. Lawmakers this week voiced concerns over what the former Illinois governor might do next.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker meets with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Thursday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker meets with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Thursday. He was joined by Deputy Gov. Dan Hynes and Alexis M. Sturm, Director of Governor’s Office of Management & Budget.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Blagojevich, 63, can’t run for state office after senators barred him from doing so. But he can run for federal office. The Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission on Tuesday plans to hold a hearing about Blagojevich’s law license.

But could Blagojevich become a lobbyist in the state of Illinois?

“I haven’t even seen that proposal or idea, but I will say that at this moment in the history of our state, we need to be wiping away the potential for corruption in every which way we can,” Pritzker said. “It’s ridiculous to me the amount that’s just been uncovered. And by the way, if you had more transparency, you’d be able to find these people. They’d be a lot less likely to run for public office if there was more transparency.”

“I’m focused on anti-corruption measures at every level. And whatever the strength of the measure that will make us the best state in country, rather than the worst,” Pritzker said.

During a 20-minute press conference in front of his Chicago home on Wednesday, Blagojevich said he hoped to take his experiences in prison “and try to do what I can to try to prove what is a broken, and I believe in many cases, a corrupt criminal justice system.”

Blagojevich was a subplot in Pritzker’s successful campaign against Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2018, when the Chicago Tribune obtained the 2008 recording.

In the FBI-wiretapped conversation, Pritzker and Blagojevich can be heard discussing potential African-American politicians to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Obama. Pritzker referred to Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White as “the “least offensive” who would cover the governor on “the African-American thing.” Pritzker also dismissed former state Senate President Emil Jones as too “crass” for the appointment.

Rauner filled the airwaves with TV commercials featuring the recordings, warning that “Pritzker and Blago”were “a corrupt deal for Illinois.”

During the campaign, Pritzker acknowledged he made a mistake, saying his “intentions were good” but that he “didn’t use the right words.” He also said he regretted the conversations.

“I clearly made a mistake that day and I clearly wasn’t my best self,” Pritzker said in 2018.