Could Blago Cause Trouble for Daley?

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(From left) Scott J. Ferrell / Congressional Quarterly / Getty, Gerald Herbert / AP

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, left, and John Harris, chief of staff for Governor Rod Blagojevich

It shouldn't come as any surprise that, in the wake of the shocking allegations against Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, observers almost immediately evoked the Windy City's rich, colorful history of corruption. But after a couple of days Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, the son of the man synonomous with cronyism and backroom Chicago politics, wasn't about to let the comparisons go unchallenged. At a Wednesday press conference, a subdued Daley, who is bidding to land the 2016 Summer Olympics, went out of his way to distance himself and his city from the stain of the burgeoning scandal. "We don't have the [bad] reputation. We have a good city here. This is all about Springfield. This is not about Chicago."

Any politician, of course, would want to put lots of space between himself and a toxic scandal like this one, in which the sitting governor stands accused of trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder. Daley, though, has a special interest in trying to draw such a sharp line: not only has his own administration been dogged by patronage scandals and federal investigations, but John Harris, the governor's co-defendant and chief of staff, was once one of Daley's top lieutenants at City Hall. (See the top 10 scandals of 2008.)

A married father of three, Harris, 46, turned in his resignation Friday, the second Blagojevich aide to fall on his political sword so far. He did so on the same day that the state's attorney general asked the Illinois Supreme Court to consider invoking an obscure state law to temporarily remove Blagojevich from power.

No one — not the feds, not the pundits — has suggested that Daley, who said Harris was "a very good employee" under his watch, would be swept up in the current probe. In fact, the mayor and the governor have had a well-known, long-standing political schism. But it does create some unease on the fifth floor of city hall, a suite that Harris got to know quite well before he was rejected for the position of Daley's chief of staff in 2005, prompting his jump from the city to the state payroll.

"It may not be that Harris learned to break the law while he was at city hall, but there was a lot of lawbreaking going on while he was there," said Jay Stewart, head of the watchdog group Better Government Association. "That experience had to come from somewhere."

In fact, some local politicos even considered Harris a spy for Daley in Blagojevich's office. But the criminal complaint, which paints Harris as the chief executioner of Blagojevich's schemes to squeeze the Tribune Co. and Children's Memorial Hospital for contributions or other political favors, among others, suggests it was indeed Blagojevich's bidding that Harris was doing.

Still, some observers, including Dick Simpson, a former alderman and current head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said a Harris arrest could create some butterflies along LaSalle Street.

"Blagojevich brought him over because he thought with a guy like Harris, maybe Blagojevich would be able to govern like Daley," Simpson said. "City hall, I doubt, is the main thrust of this current investigation, but they may be able to backtrack into city hall if Harris starts to trade information. He certainly knew about the scandals at city hall."

And during Daley's six terms in office, there have been no shortgage of those.

The most troubling for Daley, perhaps, was the Hired Truck scandal, in which scores of city workers and private contractors were convicted for idling on the city dime. Daley was interviewed by federal authorities for two hours during that investigation, which led to further inquiries into inappropriate hiring practices and patronage, but no charges were brought against him. At the time, in 2005, Daley said he did not think he was the target of a federal probe, but left open that the feds "did not indicate." "I have 38,000 people. I don't micromanage them. I don't feel personally responsible," he told TIME then.

Still, the mayor expressed embarrassment at how widespread the corruption had become and how close it had come to sullying his reputation for turning Chicago into a thriving cosmopolitan city by spurring economic development, reducing crime and trying to reform public housing and education. The probe was led by none other than Patrick Fitzgerald, the same prosecutor who announced the complaint against Blagojevich and Harris.

Harris, who served as a deputy police superintendent and city budget director, helped run the Hired Truck program under Daley. That investigation ultimately ensnared Daley's former patronage chief, Robert Sorich, who was convicted of mail fraud and rigging promotions and job fills at city hall. Harris, widely considered a tough, prickly boss, was not charged as part of the probe.

The former intelligence officer and judge advocate general oversaw one of the most bald political plays under the Mayor — the 2003 wrecking of Meigs Field, a lakefront VIP and recreational airport that Daley, in the dark of night, ordered bulldozed to make way for a huge park. And Harris helped shepherd the O'Hare International Airport expansion project, a controversial move to grow one of the world's busiest airports that put Daley at odds with suburban mayors and others.

By 2005 Harris, snubbed by Daley for the top spot of chief of staff, ditched city hall just before a large budget deficit was to be unveiled and walked across the street to the Thompson Center state building. Many at the city were surprised. As one put it: "People were like, 'what?' People just don't go over there [to the governor's office]. The money generally isn't as good and you're working for a crackpot."

In an early 2004 story on Harris, the Chicago Sun-Times quoted a source as saying Harris "knows where all the bodies are buried and where the gun is hidden." It is that fear that has some at City Hall worried and people like Stewart rethinking his assessment that the Feds squeezed City Hall as tight as they could in trying to finger Daley.

Others doubt that Harris presents any threat to his former boss. "Daley has always been smart enough to insulate himself enough," said one longtime city official. "It's not money, really, that pushes Daley. Ego and votes do. The feds keep throwing darts at the board and nothing has stuck. They've never been able to catch him in a lie. Now Harris may be able to do that, or he may not. All we know is Harris fell in with a den of thieves, and he got hooked up."

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