Blago on the hot seat: Aide pleads guilty to corruption charges

A Chicago CBS reporter says the governor of Illinois will not sleep well tonight after a key aide and contributor entered into a plea agreement with federal investigators. Ali Ata ran the Illinois Finance Authority but apparently got the job after making a payoff to Tony Rezko for Rod Blagojevich’s election campaign. Blagojevich said after the second installment that they’d have to find Ata a job where he could make up the difference:

In an explosive development reaching to the state’s highest office, a former high-ranking state official claimed Tuesday that Gov. Rod Blagojevich was on hand when he presented $25,000 in campaign money to now-indicted fundraiser Antoin “Tony” Rezko.

Ali Ata, 56, a former executive director of the Illinois Finance Authority, said Blagojevich then asked Rezko if he had talked to Ata about a job on the state payroll.

Ata said later, after he made a second $25,000 campaign contribution, Blagojevich again brought up the subject of a job and said it should be one in which Ata “could make some money.” …

The bombshell came in Ata’s signed guilty plea to lying to the FBI about Rezko’s role in getting him his state job. Blagojevich was not named in the plea, but it was clear from references in the agreement that Public Official A was the governor.

Ata’s plea said Rezko was “very involved” in fundraising for Public Official A. Also, before his selection as head of the Illinois Finance Authority, Ata was told by Public Official A that he, the official, understood Ata would join his administration, it said.

This is the first testimony that puts Governor Blagojevich in the room when a payoff got made. When Ata put the money on the table, Blagojevich asked Rezko whether he had sounded out Ata on what kind of job he wanted in the government. Blagojevich told Rezko to make sure it was “a job where the defendant could make some money,” according to the plea agreement. If the federal investigators can corroborate that with transaction records or any other witness testimony, it will almost certainly result in an indictment against the Governor.

In exchange for testimony at the Rezko trial, Ata will get no more than 18 months on federal tax-evasion and obstruction of justice charges, the latter for lying to an FBI agent during an interrogation. That means Ata will remain available for any corruption trial, not just Rezko’s. He won’t get sentenced until the prosecutors are satisfied that he has testified to the full extent of his usefulness, and that may take a while.

Blagojevich denies everything, but he is rapidly running out of options. At some point, the Democratic Party in Illinois may demand his resignation before it suffers what the Republicans endured in Ohio for much less cause. This could boost the fortunes of the flagging GOP in the Land of Lincoln.