Horse Racing Surfaces in Ill. Gov. Trial

Allegation that contribution sought to influence casino revenue bill.

By Bob Kieckhefer

The long-hinted horse racing connection to embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich's alleged misdeeds finally became public Tuesday at the governor's impeachment trial in the Illinois Senate.

Tape recorded conversations between the governor, his brother and a top fund-raiser appear to show Blagojevich maneuvering for campaign contributions from harness track owner John Johnston at a time when a bill providing race track funding was on the governor's desk.

Johnston has not been accused of wrongdoing. It is difficult to determine whether any contributions were made because prosecutors have seized Blagojevich's campaign finance records. The governor signed the bill, diverting revenue from riverboat casinos to racetracks and purse accounts, just days after he was arrested in December. At the time of his arrest, prosecutors included a racetrack shakedown among their allegations of corrupt action.

The Illinois House twice has voted to impeach Blagojevich and the Senate is sitting in judgment on those charges. The first of four tapes played for the Senate on Tuesday contained a Nov. 13 conversation between the governor and his brother, Rob, who also is a top fund-raiser. The two were discussing a conversation Rob Blagojevich had with Lon Monk, a lobbyist representing Johnston.

Rob Blagojevich says he talked to Monk. "And, uh, he says Johnny Johnston is good for it. Lon's going to talk to you about some sensitivities legislatively tonight when he sees you, with regard to the timing of all this."

The governor, apparently concerned about strict new prohibitions on campaign contributions taking effect Jan. 1, replied, "Okay, so, but clearly before the end of the year, right? They're pushing a bill. So that's probably what he wants to wait on."

The remaining three calls were in December, when the governor was still awaiting the campaign donations. Monk said he spoke with Johnston, who suggested he might contribute over a longer period of time. "I said, 'No. That's not my point','" Monk is heard saying. "'My point is this has all gotta be in now.' He goes, 'I hope I'm gonna have it next week, but you have my commitment. I've always been there. I'm gonna be there.'"

“Good,” Blagojevich responds.

The criminal information made public in December alleges Blagojevich also held up funding for a children's hospital in hope of shaking down the CEO for a campaign donation, offered the Chicago Tribune state help in selling Wrigley Field if the newspaper would fire editorial writers unfriendly to him, and tried to auction off the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Obama.

While it appears likely the Senate will convict Blagojevich and remove him from office, the governor has not yet been indicted on the criminal charges and prosecutors are going to great lengths to preserve the integrity of potential evidence. Consequently, the tapes involving horse racing are the only snippet of the "bugged" conversations being allowed at the impeachment trial.