Blago-Rahma: The limits of transparency

Barack Obama has promised a new era of transparency in his incoming administration, but don’t expect to see it in the transition.  According to Politico, the promised report on contacts between Team Obama and Rod Blagojevich in the pay-for-play scandal will not include e-mails and other records.  Transition teams do not have the same transparency requirements as White House administrations, and Obama won’t go beyond the requirements:

Barack Obama is promising that next week he’ll disclose contacts between his staff and disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s office, but he’s stopped short of pledging to release e-mails or other records that could be key to understanding those contacts.

Whatever such records exist may never see the light of day, thanks to a gap in government records disclosure laws that allows presidential transition teams to keep their documents — even those prepared using taxpayer dollars — out of the public record. …

But for now, a spokeswoman for President-elect Barack Obama said the transition team was not covered by a public information law that Politico cited in requesting copies of Obama staffers’ emails and notes about Blagojevich’s efforts to fill the Senate seat Obama vacated after winning the presidency.

Asked if the team would voluntarily release the records, the spokeswoman, Stephanie Cutter, was non-committal. “Let’s wait and see what we put out after our internal review,” she told Politico. “I don’t even know if there’s any correspondence to be had, so one step at a time.”

Obama’s currently vacationing in Hawaii, and expect him to remain out of sight when the report gets released.  His aides have already begun lowering expectations by telling reporters that Obama won’t make any public statements about the release of the internal report Obama himself promised.  After holding a series of press conferences to announce Cabinet appointments over the last two weeks, Obama has suddenly become as camera-shy as newly-minted wallflower Rahm Emanuel.

The internal report won’t be worth much, anyway.  For obvious reasons, Patrick Fitzgerald hasn’t shared the wiretaps and transcripts with Obama’s transition team.  They had to poll their team internally and perhaps review e-mail and telephone records, but without the transcripts, they won’t have a basis to provide a full response.  It may have been better for them to wait until after the grand jury review to report back, when they could have reviewed Fitzgerald’s information.  That’s a structural limit on transparency, and one that makes the internal report even less impactful.

We now have better context for Blagojevich’s disdain for “appreciation”.  The “f*** that!” response comes not from a refusal to play Let’s Make a Deal, but the lack of quid pro quo from Emanuel for giving him some political assistance.  According to sources, Emanuel pushed Valerie Jarrett for the Senate seat not because Obama wanted it but because Emanuel wanted Jarrett out of the White House, where he was afraid she would compete with him for power.  Given the grubby nature of Emanuel’s demands and the apparent lack of tangible reward offered for making his life as Chief of Staff easier, Blagojevich’s response is somewhat more understandable if still revealing about his character.

Update: Jazz Shaw wonders whether there will be a “walkback” if Fitzgerald clears Emanuel.  If Emanuel tipped off Fitzgerald to the attempt to sell the seat, then there should be — as I said yesterday.  If Emanuel just shrugged at John Harris’ attempt to get more than just “appreciation”, then Emanuel still has some explaining to do about his apathetic response to corruption.  At this time, I’m not particularly willing to close the question just because Team Obama issued its own exoneration for its own chief of staff.