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Commentary: What went right in Illinois scandal

  • Story Highlights
  • Ruben Navarrette: Scandal shows Illinois' reputation for corruption is deserved
  • He says the state is a great target of opportunity for prosecutor Fitzgerald
  • Navarrette says Tribune editorial writers showed integrity for their stances
  • Press and prosecutor protected public trust while the governor didn't, he says
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By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist and a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Read his column here

Ruben Navarrette says that as a newspaperman, it's good to see the Fourth Estate "afficting the comfortable."

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Federal prosecutors say they've uncovered a "political corruption crime spree" involving Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who allegedly hatched a variety of bribery schemes to enrich himself and his family while silencing critics.

Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, were arrested this week on federal corruption charges.

The Democratic governor's alleged machinations even included a plot to "sell the U.S. Senate seat" surrendered by President-elect Barack Obama because, as Blagojevich put it in a conversation taped by investigators, the seat is "a [expletive] valuable thing, you just don't give it away for nothing."

Political observers, media pundits and average citizens all claim to be shocked by all this. Not me. I'm oddly reassured.

It's reassuring to know that the stereotypes about political corruption in Illinois have some basis in fact. In the last 35 years, three former Illinois governors -- Otto Kerner, Dan Walker, and George Ryan -- have gone to prison.

Ryan is still serving a 6½ year prison term for steering state contracts and leases to political insiders. If Blagojevich goes to prison, he and Ryan could start an ex- governors' wing.

It's reassuring to know that, even with Congress' job approval rating in the low double digits, a seat in the U.S. Senate is still considered a prized possession.

Of course, we knew that some have tried to gain entrance to that exclusive club as a way of later enriching themselves. We just didn't consider the possibility that a governor might see a vacant Senate seat as a means of enriching himself.

It's reassuring to know that Chicago-based U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who has a voracious appetite for rooting out political corruption and must see his city and the rest of Illinois as one giant buffet, is living up to his reputation as a tough and independent Goliath slayer who doesn't hesitate to take on the powerful. Blagojevich's conduct "would make Lincoln roll over in his grave," Fitzgerald told reporters.

And, as a newspaperman, it's especially reassuring to know that the Chicago Tribune -- and specifically its editorial page -- is doing such a first-rate job of holding Blagojevich's feet to the fire that the governor allegedly tried to squash the Fourth Estate.

Prosecutors say that Blagojevich tried to intimidate the Tribune into firing editorial writers who had been critical of him.

That plot was hatched on November 6 when Harris allegedly told Blagojevich that the Tribune Co. -- which owns both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Cubs -- planned to sell Wrigley Field, the home of the Cubs, with the help of the Illinois Finance Authority (IFA).

According to prosecutors, Blagojevich told Harris that the IFA would only assist in the sale if the Chicago Tribune fired its editorial board, which had been critical of the governor.

Wow. In the circles in which I run, this is better than a Pulitzer Prize. True to their creed, journalists are supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Obviously, if the corruption charges are correct, Blagojevich was comfortable trading on his office for his own personal benefit. And the Tribune editorial writers successfully afflicted him to the point where he was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to make them stop. The editorial writers were not fired. In fact, the editor of the newspaper claims he was never pressured to do so.

For those of us in this business who have been fired or threatened or pilloried with hate mail for something we've written, it's easy to feel proud of the folks at the Chicago Tribune for holding Blagojevich accountable and doing it so ably that they went from covering the story to being part of it.

The newspaper industry has fallen on hard times, and stories like this -- even if they don't do much to boost sales -- do serve to bolster the spirit.

In Illinois, federal prosecutors, the press and the governor's office are all endowed with the public's trust and they're all expected to honor it. Two out of three ain't bad.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

All About Rod BlagojevichTribune CompanyPatrick Fitzgerald

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