A Morality Tale in Chicago as Blagojevich Aide Is Sentenced

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He should have quit while he was ahead: Once a right-hand man for the governor of Illinois, John Harris now works as an electrician at night and faces jail time.

john harris-body.jpg

John Harris, former chief of staff for imprisoned Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, leaves federal court on Wednesday, after receiving a sentence of 10 days in prison for helping attempt to sell President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat. AP Images

The tale of John Harris should force us all to look in the mirror and wonder just how many times we'd say "No" to a powerful patron before pragmatism and ambition prompted a moral lapse.

He now prepares for a serendipitously brief prison stay after winding up collateral damage in a notorious political scandal. He does so as perhaps the first high-ranking public official to segue from the center of government power to anonymous nighttime labor as an electrician's apprentice on high-power lines.

His downfall was the penchant to please a superior and being overheard serving as messenger

Harris, 50, is a very down-to-earth attorney and Gulf War veteran who served as an intelligence officer and judge advocate general in the U.S. Army before winding up as budget director to then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. In what seemed an important career promotion, he left to become chief of staff for then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

He was known for being tough, direct and trustworthy; a guy whom you'd easily hang out with at a bar. He didn't impress by the pure power of his intellect, but he was smart and savvy enough and very focused. For Mayor Daley, he was critical to effectuating a long-stalled expansion of O'Hare International Airport, dealing with complicated airline politics and logistics.

He is, by most accounts, a hard-working and faultlessly decent family man who personifies the complexity of so many people. One of his three boys is in my own second-grader's class at a Chicago public school, where other parents have only the best things to say about him and his wife and the children.

But on Wednesday I sat behind his wife as he was sentenced by a federal judge to an unconventional sentence of 10 days in prison and two years of probation for his role in ignominious tenure of Blagojevich, who recently began his own 14-year prison sentence.

FBI wiretaps captured many hours of conversations involving him and the governor in which his boss ordered him to execute various schemes and dumb requests. In numerous instances, he manifested his private qualms by simply not carrying out those orders.

Indeed, in one instance, Judge James Zagel revealed Wednesday, the former Army captain did say no when Blagojevich was characteristically inclined to fulfill a Chicago alderman's outrageous request that a young man with the Illinois National Guard not be deployed to Iraq. Harris would not go along with such a fix.

But ambition, and being so close to the seat of government power, did not prompt him to leave the lair of a man who may well be mentally unstable. He rolled his eyes, complained privately to some but stuck around.

His downfall was the penchant to please a superior and being overheard serving as messenger for one of the many quid pro quos that "Blago" mulled after Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election. This involved the governor seeking a union-paid position in return for possibly naming Valerie Jarrett, a close friend of the Obamas, to the Senate seat that ultimately went to a bonafide hack, Roland Burris.

Harris was arrested the same morning as Blagojevich but, unlike his boss, quickly resigned his job, offered significant assistance to the government and pleaded guilty to conspiring to solicit a bribe.

On Wednesday, the government detailed his cooperation; in particular how he helped prosecutors decode hundreds of hours of wiretaps, most of which weren't used at trial and will thus never be public.

"He was in a unique position," said Carrie Hamilton, a prosecutor, and assisted her and colleagues with understanding calls that didn't make any initial sense to them.

He was their star witness at both Blagojevich trials, especially the retrial that led to the impeached governor's sweeping conviction and jail term. And, while both helping prosecutors interpret much of their evidence, then testifying on their behalf, he was "reinventing himself," as Ms. Hamilton put it, by giving up his law license (presumably before he'd be disbarred as a convicted felon) and becoming an electrician's apprentice to pay his family's bills.

So a man who was once right-hand aide for the governor of a major state found himself working as an electrician at night, arriving home around 6 a.m. and a few hours later heading downtown to assist prosecutors for many hours over many months.

Most all of that was unknown to the outside world, certainly to most at my eight-year-old's school, who simply knew him as a doting parent.

When it was Harris' own turn to speak, he conceded his own fear for his family and his personal shame on the day of his arrest. In seeking to maintain the confidence of his patron, the governor, "I lost my way," he said. "I apologize to the state of Illinois, to my family and friends."

But the most interesting moments during the sentencing hearing were left to Zagel, a politically savvy Harvard Law graduate and former federal prosecutor who was in state government, including as head of the Illinois State Police, serving two governors.

"It's difficult for me to appreciate what you've gone through," he told Harris. "The two elected officials I worked for were very different characters but understood when an advisor told them "No," they took the 'No.'"

He then projected himself onto the whole Blagojevich odyssey, replete with its primer on American government via the FBI wiretaps, the scheming, the deceits and the governor's obsession with rivalries and self-promotion.

"I can't suggest that if I had been in your position I would have acted differently except in one respect: I would have left much sooner," Zagel said.

Would he have done so? Would any of the rest of us?

He added that his own past experience with governors drew him to two of the many character reference letters sent his way on behalf of Harris. One came from Blagojevich's onetime executive assistant, who portrayed the former governor as a relentless and tactless boss who felt it his right to call anybody at anytime, no matter their personal circumstances.

The other came from John Schmidt, a prominent Chicago attorney who served Daley as his first chief of staff more than two decades ago and also served President Clinton as Associate Attorney General, reporting to Attorney General Janet Reno.

The judge read just a snippet or two. But the whole correspondence from Schmidt is notable, especially in laying out the dynamics of the jobs held by those who serve the high and mighty -- and the moral challenges that can be unavoidable and raise the question to all of us as to when, really, we might head to the exits. Schmidt wrote,

A governor or mayor is vested with personal responsibility to decide an enormous number of matters ranging from personnel appointments and regulatory actions to budgetary decisions and actions with respect to legislation of all kinds.These decisions are often made in an environment of intense political controversy and the anticipation of potential attack by the public, press or a variety of affected interests.

More than with any other single person, an elected official typically discusses these matters with a chief of staff who is responsible for implementing decisions that are made. That ongoing discussion is by its very nature very wide-ranging and takes place at stages that can vary from mere speculation about possible future actions to active deliberation on impending matters and ultimately to final decision-making.

In my own experience of serving as chief of staff to an elected official there were certainly occasions when we discussed possible courses of action that I thought were mistaken but I opted not to confront the issue directly at that point but instead to allow the matter to play out in the belief that it would move in a more positive direction in the normal course of events or as a result of reactions from others that I could anticipate or in the expectation that the simple fact of deferral or delay would lead to second thoughts.

Any chief of staff must bear in the mind the basic fact that he is a subordinate to an elected official who has the legal and political authority of the office and a chief of staff who confronts the elected official immediately on every occasions of disagreement would probably not remain long or be effective in that position.

To be in that kind of position with an elected official who has the personality traits demonstrated by Governor Blagojevich and for whom the possibilities under discussion went beyond permissible alternatives into the criminal use of his office for personal gain would be extraordinarily difficult. I do not question John's acknowledgment that his own participation crossed the legal line but I also recognize the difficulty of drawing that line as a subordinate serving as an elected governor.

None of Blagojevich's maneuvering over personally profiting from Obama's vacated Senate seat actually was actually executed. No money changed hands, no jobs were procured. But Zagel used the occasion to ask Harris what he would have done if deals had been actually made, money changed hands and appointments made?

"It's hard to say with certainty," said Harris. "I'd like to think I would have stood up and stopped him."

It is hard to say. We'd all like to think we would have stood up and stopped him. What would you have done?

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of the Daily Beast/Newsweek and an MSNBC analyst. He's former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. More

James Warren is a former manager, editor and Washington bureau chief of The Chicago Tribune. An ink-stained wretch, he's labored at The Newark Star-Ledger, The Chicago Sun-Times, and the Tribune in a variety of positions, including financial reporter, legal affairs reporter-columnist, labor writer, media writer-columnist and features editor. The Washingtonian once tagged him one of the town's 50 most influential journalists (he thinks he was 46, the number worn by Andy Pettitte, a pitcher for his beloved New York Yankees). He's a political analyst for MSNBC. He was recently publisher and president of the Chicago Reader, and is now policy columnist for Business Week and twice-a-week Chicago columnist for The New York Times (you can find his handiwork on the paper's website and on new Chicago pages produced for Friday's and Sunday's Midwest print editions by the nonprofit Chicago News Cooperative, which he held to start). A native New Yorker, he's a happy resident of the wonderful, if ethically challenged, City of Chicago, where he lives just north of decaying Wrigley Field with his Pulitzer Prize-winning wife, Cornelia, and their sons, Blair and Eliot. Blair's t-ball team is, yes, the Yankees.

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