CHICAGO – A former chief of staff to ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich pleaded guilty Wednesday to taking part in a scheme to sell or trade President Barack Obama’s Senate seat and vowed to testify at the ex-governor’s corruption trial.
John Harris, 47, admitted in his signed plea agreement that he repeatedly talked with Blagojevich about how the then-governor could turn his power to name a successor to Obama to his own financial advantage – such as trading it for a high-paying job.
Harris’s defence attorney, Terry Ekl, said he expects Blagojevich to go to trial on racketeering conspiracy charges and that his client would take the witness stand to outline what he knows about corruption in the administration.
“I have never met a person who is going to be a better witness than John Harris is going to be,” Ekl told reporters after his client pleaded guilty.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, Randall Samborn, had no comment.
Harris pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel to a single count of wire fraud for a November 2008 phone conversation about appointing Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to the seat being vacated by Obama’s election as president.
In his plea agreement, Harris outlined a scheme under which Blagojevich would get a job as head of a union-sponsored organization, Change to Win, in exchange for giving Jarrett the Senate seat. Officials of the Service Employees International Union were to broker the scheme had it gone forward. It did not.
Jarrett, now a White House adviser, was not mentioned by name in the plea agreement but has been identified in the past as the Senate Candidate B who was to get the seat under the plan. Jarrett eventually took her name out of contention for the seat and has been accused of no wrongdoing in the case.
Officials with the SEIU union also have not been accused of any wrongdoing.
After Blagojevich believed that Jarrett was no longer a candidate, he discussed two other possible candidates for the Senate seat, the plea agreement said. In one case, he allegedly told Harris that he wanted to receive the candidate’s entire campaign fund in exchange for the Senate appointment.
While Harris pleaded guilty to breaking the law, the plea agreement said that the chief of staff repeatedly warned the governor against doing so.
In addition to the Change to Win job, Blagojevich also expressed interest in getting an ambassadorship for himself or being named secretary of health and human services in the Obama administration in exchange for the Senate seat, according to the plea agreement.
In exchange for Harris’ co-operation in the investigation and testimony at Blagojevich’s trial, prosecutors have agreed to recommend a sentence of no more than 35 months in federal prison. But his lawyer is free to argue for a lesser term.