Obama Blagojevich Report: Team Claims Exoneration

Barack Obama's chief counsel declared on Tuesday afternoon that only one member of the President-elect's staff -- incoming chief of staff Rahm Emanuel -- had any communications with embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his staff since Obama's election.

Emanuel's interactions, moreover, were not in any way improper, Obama's aides stressed, and the transition team was fully compliant both with the law and the U.S. Attorney's investigation into Blagojevich's alleged pay-for-play scheme.

"No one in the Obama circle was aware of what was going on in the governor's office until he was arrested," said Greg Craig, Obama's counsel. "They found out what the Governor was doing the same time the American public found out about it."

While Craig and spokesman Robert Gibbs debriefed reporters, the Obama transition team put out a five-page report detailing the extent of contacts between the Illinois governor, the President-elect, and their respective staffs.

As was reported over the weekend, incoming chief of staff Rahm Emanuel had been in touch with Blagojevich and his chief of staff, primarily about the replacement process for Emanuel's own congressional seat but also about various Obama replacements.

At some point in mid-November, the Obama internal review states, the president-elect discussed potential "qualified candidates" for the Senate seat with Emanuel and senior adviser David Axelrod. "Those candidates included Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Jesse Jackson, Jr., Dan Hynes and Tammy Duckworth. The President-Elect understood that Rahm Emanuel would relay these names to the Governor's office as additions to the pool of qualified candidates who might already be under consideration. Mr. Emanuel subsequently confirmed to the President that he had in fact relayed these names. At no time in the discussion of the Senate seat or of possible replacements did the President-Elect hear of a suggestion that the Governor expected a personal benefit in return for making this appointment to the Senate."

Axelrod and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett both "did not have any contacts with the Governor or his office but are included in the report," Craig's findings say. But there is enough back-channel conversation involving Jarrett -- mostly second-hand discussion about Blagojevich's scheme -- to possibly create public relations issues for her down the road.

According to the report, Jarrett had one contact with Blagojevich, during a National Governor's Association Conference in Philadelphia in early December -- "over three weeks after she had decided not to pursue the Senate seat." Jarrett did speak to Tom Balanoff, the head of the Illinois chapter of the Service Employees International Union, who relayed to her that he had spoken with Blagojevich about her being named Obama's replacement. Balanoff also related that Blagojevich was, perhaps, interested in heading the Department of Health and Human Services in the new administration.

"Mr. Balanoff did not suggest," the internal report states, "that the Governor, in talking about HHS, was linking a position for himself in the Obama cabinet to the selection of the President-elect's successor in the Senate, and Ms. Jarrett did not understand the conversation to suggest that the Governor wanted the cabinet seat as a quid pro quo..."

As for the HHS topic, "[Jarrett] viewed that as a ridiculous proposition and waved it off," Craig said to reporters. "She found it to be a random comment on the face of it, ridiculous, and dismissed it as such."

The section on Axelrod helps explain a statement he made on the scandal that created some confusion. "After the election, the President-elect discussed -- with Mr. Axelrod and Mr. Emanuel -- a number of individuals who were highly qualified to take his place in the Senate. Mr. Axelrod was under the impression that the President-elect would convey this information to the Governor or to someone from the Governor's office, which explains why Mr. Axelrod gave an inaccurate answer on this subject to questions from the press."

One other newsworthy bit: Craig said that the decision to delay the issuance of the report was made strictly by Patrick Fitzgerald's office. They were worried about the damage it could cause to their investigation.

"This report was provided to the U.S. attorney's office today," said Craig. "It was ready for delivery actually on December 15, when I met with the U.S. Attorney and he asked me on that occasion to hold off out of concerns that by releasing this report we might have some impact on his investigation."