By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
When Cari and the fundraiser who paid for the trip, Stuart Levine, the Blagojevich appointee to two state boards, pled guilty in separate federal cases that tarred the governor without indicting him, the press and the Republicans dubbed the flight "the Shakedown Shuttle." The indictments spelled out the criminal conversations that occurred on the trip, and Blagojevich's 2006 Republican opponent, State Treasurer Judy Topinka, taunted him with it.
Topinka assailed Tusk's presence on the shuttle in a Voice interview and linked the media explosion about it in 2006 to his departure. "I don't think the man is stupid," said Topinka, contending that "if he stuck around," he might have been "sucked into a whirlpool" that has consumed Blagojevich. Edwin Eisendrath, the former Chicago alderman who ran against Blagojevich in the Democratic primary, said: "It's unimaginable that Tusk didn't know about the corrupt selling of public services."
The other connection Tusk has with the federal complaint is his longtime friend and sponsor John Wyma.
Wyma is the reason the feds were finally able to obtain court orders and install wires on Blagojevich's campaign committee and home in October. The lobbyist closest to Blagojevich, he'd been flipped by the feds as part of a possible immunity deal. Wyma was also on the same list of impeachment witnesses as Tusk.
By Tusk's own account, it was Wyma who first introduced him to Blagojevich in 2001 in a Washington restaurant, when Tusk and Wyma, Blagojevich's former top aide in the House, were working as aides to Schumer. Wyma helped run Blagojevich's first campaign for governor in 2002, while working for a Washington lobbying company, and started signing up lobbying clients for his own firm in Illinois as soon as Blagojevich took office. Two months later, the new top lobbyist in town persuaded Blagojevich to hire Tusk as a 29-year-old Deputy Governor, an odd pathway to power for a supposedly "good-government" recruit.
Caleb Weaver, who says he was hired by Tusk to run the drug importation program (I-Save-RX), recalled being introduced to Wyma at the 2004 staff roll-out meeting for the program run by Tusk and Blagojevich. Regenstein recalls Wyma being the only lobbyist at a critical 2006 budget discussion with Tusk and Blagojevich. Wyma was such an inexplicably integral part of the Blagojevich administration that he used the governor's wife as a broker when he bought a $650,000 condo from one of his lobbying clients, a tollway contractor who won a $2 million, no-bid deal the day before he paid her up to $39,000 in commissions.
Wyma's client list in Blagojevich's first year was up to an impressive 25, but it continued growing to 67 by 2006. The Tribune found that Wyma's clients, and those of the four other lobbyists close to Blagojevich, contributed $5 million to the governor by the time Tusk left the payroll in early 2007. Before he left, Tusk lined up a job with Lehman Brothers, which had long paid Wyma more than any of its other outside lobbyists reported on public forms ($25,000 a month). It landed $1.3 billion in no-bid state bond work, most of it also tied to the tollway authority.
Tusk became Lehman's in-house lobbyist, traveling the country trying to get states to privatize their lotteries, an initiative he'd helped launch in Illinois. Lehman was certainly interested in bidding to buy the Illinois lottery, but the legislature blocked Blagojevich's attempted sale of it. Wolfson told the Voice that Tusk got clearance from Illinois ethics officials to do Lehman work on the privatizing effort there, "but chose not to anyway." A Barclays spokeswoman, speaking on behalf of the former Lehman official who hired Tusk, said that it was a corporate condition of his employment that he "not do Illinois work." With no state privatizing its lotteries, despite Tusk's hiring of top Republican operatives to influence Republican governors, his time at Lehman is such a negative that Wolfson simply referred to it as Tusk's "private sector experience."
Two other Wyma clients, GTECH and IGOR, were widely reported to be the leading potential beneficiaries of another Tusk-driven lottery initiative designed to fuel increased school funding: the introduction of a keno game, which Tusk likened to bingo. GTECH, a commercial gaming technology company with a scandal-ridden history across the country, did extensive work with Blagojevich officials to develop the keno proposal, which Tusk pushed in several news stories as a budget-balancing revenue source.
Already receiving $27 million a year for running the Lotto game, GTECH was described in news accounts as having "an enormous advantage" over other bidders, in part because it helped draft the keno bid. In one example of how a policy pronouncement could benefit a lobbying client, Tusk publicly declared that instituting keno "doesn't even require" legislative approval, but House Democrats blocked it. IGOR, whose principals contributed $76,000 to Blagojevich, had the lottery ticket distribution contract.
If Tusk's school-funding efforts were one of his major initiatives, his most ballyhooed achievement, celebrated by him when he did his farewell interviews, was the All Kids insurance program, which made health care available to any family who applied on a sliding income scale. As laudable as the effort might have been, even it could not escape Wyma, whose client, Wellcare, appeared almost immediately at a vendor conference for a new All Kids contract and was depicted in the media as a prospective beneficiary.