Rod Blagojevich, who was selling his just-published book in New York last week, has a lot to say about Bradley Tusk, the former Deputy Governor of Illinois now running Mike Bloomberg’s campaign.
Undaunted by his upcoming federal trial, the impeached yet irrepressible ex-governor stayed here for several days; but other than a single innocuous question from NY1’s Dominic Carter, no one in the city press corps appears to have asked him about Tusk. The Times did a 44-paragraph story (with a full-page picture up top) on Howard Wolfson, who works for Tusk and was described in the piece as an “outsider in the Bloomberg camp,” but hasn’t taken a look at the man Wolfson works for, whose four years with Blagojevich make him an invitation to inquiry.
Tusk left Bloomberg’s City Hall staff in 2003 just a few months after Blagojevich became governor to take what Blagojevich said in a Voice interview Monday was his “number one post” in the government. Tusk remained deputy governor through Blagojevich’s 2006 re-election, leaving to join Lehman Brothers in 2007. Asked if Tusk ever expressed any “concerns” about the pay-to-play and other allegations that engulfed the Blagojevich administration during those years, the former governor said: “No, he never said that. He did not think that things were being done in a wrong way.”
While media accounts have focused on Blagojevich’s alleged attempt to sell President Barack Obama’s senate seat, the initial federal complaint against Blagojevich charged him with “a scheme to defraud the state” that started in 2002. The first 31 pages of the 76-page arrest affidavit recounted events that occurred while Tusk was at the helm of the government. In fact, the affidavit indicates that the probe began in 2003. By the time Tusk left, a half dozen of Blagojevich’s closest associates had been indicted, some had even pled guilty, and his campaign committee had paid over $700,000 to a top criminal law firm to fend off charges against him.
Yet, by Blagojevich’s account, “when those fires were being lit, Bradley would be one of the guys putting those fires out. He was very dutiful in helping us deal with those political fires.”
The fires peaked during the 2006 campaign, when a flight to New York to see Bloomberg — orchestrated by Tusk in 2003 and later dubbed the Shakedown Shuttle in Chicago news accounts — evoked a firestorm of criticism. Tusk and Blagojevich’s bodyguard were the only passengers on the seven-passenger chartered flight not to be indicted.
Blagojevich came to the city to jointly announce an international prescription drug importation program with the mayor, an initiative that Tusk developed that was so illegally operated it became a charge in the eventual impeachment proceedings against Blagojevich. Not only does the pending Blagojevich indictment allude repeatedly to the criminal conversations that occurred on that flight, government charges filed against others on the flight were filed while the ostensibly untroubled Tusk was still with Blagojevich.
The ex-governor was very protective of Tusk during his 35-minute interview, recalling, for example, that he’d met former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld and onetime New York State Comptroller Çarl McCall at a Harvard Club fundraiser thrown for him during the 2003 trip, and even recounting what he’d said at the fundraiser, but drawing a blank on whether Tusk was there. Tusk also wouldn’t answer questions about whether he’d gone to the three fundraisers that day when we posed them before we published the March story (Wolfson answered questions selectively at that time and Tusk declined to talk to us). A Democratic legislator, Jack Franks, told the Voice in March that Tusk’s appearance on the trip was “highly inappropriate,” noting that Blagojevich’s staff was “enabling him” to blur “the line between state and political business.”
But Blagojevich did say that “we didn’t have a line drawn in the sand” barring top government aide like Tusk from “intersecting with donors,” and that he was sure that Tusk “did intersect with donors,” citing labor unions as an example. He said that Tusk was “minding the store” and running the government while he ran for re-election in 2006. “If he had free time in the evening, he would help here and there” during the campaign, said Blagojevich. “The night before the election, we had a rally at the headquarters and Bradley was there.”
Blagojevich confirmed that John Wyma, the former Blagojevich congressional aide who quickly became the top lobbyist in Illinois when Blagojevich took office, recommended the then 29-year-old Tusk for the top administration job. “It was all Wyma,” said Blagojevich, recalling that Wyma introduced him to Tusk when he was still in Congress and Tusk was an aide to U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer. Wyma, whose start-up firm quickly grew to handling 67 clients while Tusk was still with the state, began cooperating with the feds as part of an immunity deal last fall and provided the information necessary to obtain court orders authorizing wires on Blagojevich’s campaign headquarters and home.
Wyma was so tied into Tusk and Blagojevich that Tusk included him at a key staff roll-out meeting on the prescription drug program, and Blagojevich’s wife collected $39,000 in brokerage commissions on the purchase of Wyma’s own condo from a state contractor. Wolfson told the Voice in March that Wyma “remains a friend” of Tusk’s, while Blagojevich declined to say the same during his interview. Blagojevich said he didn’t know if Wyma played a role in Tusk’s getting his eventual job with Lehman Brothers, a Wyma client that did major state no-bid business. “What do you think?” he asked.
Blagojevich said he has “a high regard for Bradley,” but that he hasn’t spoken to him since he left the government. He said the two hadn’t talked out of “an overabundance of caution.” Tusk’s job with Lehman until the collapse in 2008, when he joined the Bloomberg campaign, was to try to convince states to privatize their lotteries and sell them to Lehman. Tusk had pioneered the concept in Illinois while working for Blagojevich. “I thought it would be inappropriate,” Blagojevich said, ” because people could say that he got the idea from us.”
Tusk has never made any public statement critical of Blagojevich since leaving him, even at the peak of the scandal. It was reported in the Chicago papers that the state’s Attorney General, Lisa Madigan, subpoenaed Tusk’s records in 2005. Though Blagojevich rails against Madigan in his book, he had only the faintest recollection of what she was pursuing when she went after Tusk. He thought it might have been part of her probe of what Blagojevich called the administration’s “hiring practices,” though he could not explain why Tusk would’ve had any records related to patronage since Wolfson told us back in March that he was not involved in hiring, an assertion Blagojevich rushed to embrace in our interview. Blagojevich said he had no knowledge of whether Tusk had been questioned by the feds in the current probe.
The Voice e-mailed Wolfson with a list of these quotes, asking for a response, and Wolfson said that Tusk had no comment.