Unless you were under a rock, flying on a space shuttle or in a coma, you witnessed last week the bombshell that exploded across the nation's political landscape. FBI agents arrested Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich at his home Tuesday morning, having heard him via wiretaps and listening devices allegedly engaging in a conspiracy to sell his appointment to fill President-elect Barack Obama's seat in the U.S. Senate. With the White House press corps decamped to Chicago to cover the Obama transition, they have given breathless coverage of the scandal.
Patrick Fitzgerald, the Chicago-based U.S. attorney who brought the charges, is considered the consummate professional - fearless, appropriately aggressive and completely apolitical. He made a name for himself and proved his courage and independence with his successful prosecution of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, on charges of lying to a federal grand jury. Now Fitzgerald is pursuing a case that is certain to be a political headache for President-elect Barack Obama, even though Obama appears in no way to be implicated by Blagojevich's alleged corruption.
Unlike many (even most) U.S. attorneys, Fitzgerald is a career Justice Department lawyer who was brought to Chicago at the urging of former Illinois Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (no relation) to clean up corruption in Illinois politics. He's gone about the job with gusto, having already put George Ryan, Blagojevich's Republican predecessor as governor, in prison for soliciting and taking bribes.
Watching Fitzgerald operate makes one wonder what he could accomplish here in Georgia if by some miracle he became the U.S. attorney in Atlanta. In contrast to the fearless and independent Fitzgerald, Atlanta-based U.S. Attorney David Nahmias is the consummate Republican team player who has served as cover for our state officials, most of whom are now Republicans.
Nahmias has not moved even an inch to take on political corruption here in Republican-dominated Georgia, with the exception of his takedown of former State Rep. Ron Sailor, an African American Democrat who was arguably the least influential member of the General Assembly. Nahmias has remained on the sidelines even after media exposure of scandals that would have caused Fitzgerald (or even a less skilled and aggressive prosecutor) to start an immediate investigation.
The most obvious is Nahimas' failure to inquire into the relationship between Gov. Sonny Perdue and Newnan-based real estate developer Stan Thomas. Perdue appointed Thomas to the state Board of Economic Development, a seemingly useful post for someone in the business of building major commercial and residential projects. As was detailed by the Atlanta press, after his appointment, Thomas cut Perdue in on one of his major real estate developments in Florida to the tune of $2 million. In addition, Thomas has given hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Perdue and has allowed the governor to use Thomas' fleet of private aircraft. Not a bad trade if you're Perdue - give Thomas a board seat and reap big rewards: a chance for a seven-figure real estate deal, hundreds of thousands in political contributions and a fleet of aircraft at your disposal.
We also learned from the media about Perdue's manipulation of the legislative process to engineer a $100,000 state tax break for himself by making a new tax code provision retroactive. Perdue's personal lawyer just happens to be a senior Republican member of the state House, who minded the effort to line the governor's pocket.
Then we have Oaky Woods, which was formerly a state wildlife preserve. When the timber company that was renting it to the state moved to sell it, Perdue blocked a national environmental organization from buying the land on behalf of the people of Georgia. That just happened to allow a group of developers (a group that includes the governor's friends and campaign donors) to buy the property and build Middle Georgia's biggest subdivision. To top it off, Perdue had purchased land that he failed to disclose right next to the new development - land sure to skyrocket in value.
It's safe to say that Fitzgerald would pursue all of those matters with gusto, likely getting to the bottom of each of them and bringing charges against persons who committed crimes, no matter who they were or their station in life. And those are just the three areas we know about that are crying to be investigated. Who knows what else lurks in the closets of the crowd now running Georgia's government?
Alas, Georgia is unlikely to end up with Fitzgerald here to clean up our mess. We will be stuck doing it ourselves at the ballot box. Forgive me if I lack confidence in that possibility, considering that Georgians' choices in the voting booths are what got us into this mess in the first place.
You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, or Web address: billshipponline.com.