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Prosecutors Attack Political Corruption Throughout US History

U.S. prosecutors have charged Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich with corruption, including allegations that he tried to sell to the highest bidder the Senate seat left vacant by President-elect Barack Obama. The governor is the latest U.S. politician to be charged with corruption and some analysts say because the American political system is awash in money, he is not likely to be the last.

"Blagojevich gets busted, read all about it," chanted a newspaper seller.

Men selling newspapers on the streets of Chicago have been doing a brisk business since the arrest of Governor Blagojevich.

The extent of the alleged corruption by the governor has stunned even veteran prosecutors like U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.

"The conduct would make [President Abraham] Lincoln [who came from Illinois,] roll over in his grave," said Patrick Fitzgerald.

Blagojevich and his chief of staff John Harris are charged with trading state business for favors and campaign contributions.

Investigators say Blagojevich was recorded on telephone wiretaps trying to profit from his authority as governor to appoint the replacement to fill President-elect Obama's U.S. Senate seat.

U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald read one of the transcripts to reporters.

"I have got this thing, and it is 'bleeping' [expletive deleted] golden," he said. "And I am just not giving it up for 'bleeping' [expletive deleted] nothing."

Prosecutors say there is no evidence that Mr. Obama was aware of the governor's efforts to auction off his Senate seat.

"I had no contact with the governor or his office and so I was not aware of what was happening," said Barack Obama.

The Blagojevich scandal is the latest result of several investigations into political corruption. Three former Illinois governors have gone to prison during the past 35 years on corruption charges.

Former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska was found guilty of lying about gifts he received from an oil services company, including improvements on his home. Stevens lost his reelection bid this year, ending a 40-year career in the Senate.

A U.S. Representative from Louisiana, William Jefferson, is awaiting trial on charges of bribery and misusing his office. When federal agents raided his home in 2006, they found $90,000 in alleged bribe money stashed in a freezer. Jefferson also lost his reelection bid this year.

Allan Lichtman is a presidential historian at American University here in Washington.

"It is usually about money, but it is about something else as well," said Allan Lichtman. "It is also about what I call 'the arrogance of power'. These politicians think they are above the law, above common morality."

Lichtman points out that political corruption in America goes back many years.

Just after the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s, during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, corruption was widespread as northern businessmen frequently took advantage of the ravaged southern states.

In the 1920s, during Warren Harding's administration, the infamous Teapot Dome scandal led to the conviction of Interior Secretary Albert Fall on charges that he accepted bribes to allow access to federal oil lands.

Again, American University's Allan Lichtman:

"So unfortunately, we have had corruption throughout American history," he said. "Although it does seem to have reached a high point in recent years."

Despite that history, analysts point out that unlike some countries where corruption is institutionalized and even accepted, it is considered a major crime in the United States.

Melanie Sloan is Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

"Here, there is a view that corruption is not acceptable and there are federal prosecutors who are always looking to root it out,' said Melanie Sloan. "And when it is rooted out, people do, in fact, go to jail and the voters care and vote those guys out."

President-elect Obama promised during his campaign to fight corruption and reduce the influence of lobbyists in Washington.

Historian Allan Lichtman says the Blagojevich scandal makes it more important for Mr. Obama to keep that promise.

"It makes it even more incumbent upon Obama to take decisive action to try to deal with the culture of corruption that is so rife in American politics," said Lichtman. "More than ever, Americans are expecting a new day to dawn in American politics. But there is only so much a president can do."

Mr. Obama says no one on his staff had inappropriate contact with Blagojevich.

The governor denies any wrongdoing and is resisting calls to resign.