A week into the scandal, this question's catching on: exactly how criminal was Rod Blagojevich's behavior? Or was it just tacky?
We first saw it from Jack Shafer on December 10. Slate's cantankerous press critic naturally sided immediately with the corrupt governor of Illinois, asking what evidence there was of Blago committing actual crimes and not merely making explicit the implicit favor-trading of politics. (Also he notes that $100 million is really far too much to pay for the firing of just one critical journalist.)
Then, attorney Maureen Martin, writing in the Chicago Tribune, claimed that the feds didn't have much of a case against Blago, and his arrest "raises serious questions about abuses of federal government power."
Now, finally, the New York Times weighs in. Once David Johnston pens his signature "news analysis," you know your fancy counterintuitive Slate position is old hat. Maybe the case against Blago is all evening news-ready flash and no substance!
Because we all know how politics work: people donate money and receive political favors for it. People do political favors and receive nice appointments or fancy ambassadorships for it. Blago simply made these implicit arrangements explicit, on wiretapped phones. But he also didn't manage to secure any of the things he was after, as he was arrested before he could make an appointment.
In the case of Mr. Blagojevich, it would be legal for the governor to accept a campaign contribution from someone he appointed to the Senate seat. What would create legal problems for him is if he was tape-recorded specifically offering a seat in exchange for the contribution. What would make the case even easier to prosecute is if he was recorded offering the seat in exchange for a personal favor, like cash, a job or a job for a family member.
Patrick Fitzgerald basically admitted he arrested the Guv to stop him mid-crime spree, not because he'd finished building a good case agains thim. With the Governor acting to get a Tribune editor fired and about to appoint a senator who'd be tarnished by a connection to a pol under investigation, Fitz wrote his criminal complaint to destroy Blago's political capital and force a resignation or impeachment, not necessarily to get an indictment (hence all the hilarious phone transcripts full of cursing and idiocy—evidence less of crime than of unbalanced paranoia).
That's maybe a bit beyond the mandate of a US Attorney, but as long as Pat keeps going after guys no one likes, he remains golden.
(Blago did probably break a dozen corruption and bribery laws over the course of his career, of course, but the criminal complaint details only the most salacious conversations of the last, delirious month of Blago's tenure, not his rich history of less telegenic pay-for-play dealings.)