J.B. Pritzker, a billionaire businessman with political ambitions, told Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich he was “really not that interested” in the U.S. Senate seat the governor was dealing in late 2008.
Instead, Pritzker offered his own idea: Would Blagojevich make him Illinois treasurer?
“Ooh, interesting,” Blagojevich said during a November 2008 phone call with Pritzker. “Let’s think about that. You interested in that?”
“Yeah,” Pritzker answered, “that’s the one I would want.”
Phone calls secretly recorded by federal agents — never before publicly revealed — captured that exchange and other conversations between the influential Democratic donor and the then-governor discussing politics, their futures and the ramifications of Blagojevich’s authority to fill the Senate seat being vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.
Although Blagojevich raised the idea of appointing Pritzker to the Senate, Pritzker expressed his preference for being state treasurer, a post he believed might soon be vacated by its occupant, Alexi Giannoulias, who was rumored to be in the running for a post in the Obama White House. In one conversation, Blagojevich asked Pritzker for a significant campaign contribution as the two discussed the possible treasurer’s appointment.
During the discussions about the treasurer’s office, Pritzker spoke of enlisting the chief executives of Chicago’s commodities exchanges to float the idea publicly. And, if the treasurer appointment didn’t work out, Blagojevich suggested he could make Pritzker Illinois’ attorney general, after asking the Hyatt Hotels heir if he had a law degree.
“My interest in holding public office is, you know, always large,” Pritzker told Blagojevich in a call on Nov. 6, 2008, two days after Obama was elected president.
Pritzker did not respond to requests for an interview and his campaign responded to Tribune questions with a statement.
“There was nothing untoward about J.B. Pritzker’s conversations and throughout his career he has considered different ways he could serve the people of Illinois. The record is clear that Rod Blagojevich was having dozens of conversations with both elected officials and private citizens, including members of President Obama’s transition team, which is why he is currently in prison. J.B. has been a proud supporter of hundreds of progressive and Democratic leaders and organizations in Illinois and across the country, especially those who have been supporters of early childhood education,” according to the statement from Pritzker campaign spokeswoman Galia Slayen.
Federal law enforcement officials captured the candid talks on secret wiretaps as they investigated Blagojevich and his administration for public corruption in fall 2008. The Tribune obtained the recordings, as well as transcripts of calls to others.
Pritzker’s longtime relationship with Blagojevich already has emerged as an early campaign issue as he seeks the 2018 Democratic nomination for governor.
The calls from the 2008 investigation show Pritzker and Blagojevich consulted on how various Senate candidates would bolster the governor’s interests. The two also mused about the ongoing criminal investigation into Blagojevich’s administration and the financial troubles of a bank controlled by his sister.
Obama’s election in November 2008 provided Blagojevich with the rare opportunity to appoint a new U.S. senator. Although Blagojevich was under intense scrutiny, politicians, businessmen and others were more than willing to speak to him about the Senate seat.
Pritzker was one of them. He and Blagojevich discussed various horse-trading scenarios that would benefit the governor. During the same Nov. 6, 2008, conversation, the two discussed one possibility: perhaps Blagojevich should follow Obama’s wishes and pick the president-elect’s friend, Valerie Jarrett, for the Senate seat.
“The only reason to do it is if he’ll appoint you to something,” Pritzker advised the governor.
Pritzker’s calls with Blagojevich came at a time when it was widely known that the governor was the target of an intensifying, yearslong federal investigation into the governor’s administration and fundraising activities.
In June 2008, a few months before the phone calls between Pritzker and the governor, Antoin “Tony” Rezko, who had been a key Blagojevich fundraiser and adviser, was convicted by a federal jury of corruption charges after a headline-grabbing trial that lasted weeks. Testimony showed Blagojevich was aware of the “pay-to-play” schemes in Rezko’s criminal case. Weeks later came public disclosure that Blagojevich himself had been interviewed multiple times by investigators.
By fall 2008, the Tribune reported that a former aide to the governor, John Wyma, who was still fundraising for him, was subpoenaed.
What Pritzker would not have known was that Wyma had begun cooperating with federal investigators, and the that FBI bugged the governor’s campaign offices. Secret recordings then expanded to other Blagojevich phone lines, including the one Blagojevich used to conduct business from his Northwest Side home.
Federal authorities who had been listening for illegal fundraising activity quickly learned that Blagojevich was self-dealing when it came to the selection to replace Obama.
Blagojevich eventually was convicted of sweeping political corruption charges, including an attempt to sell Obama’s Senate seat, and sentenced to 14 years in prison. FBI agents listened in on calls to others in which Blagojevich discussed whether he would pick Jarrett in exchange for being named to Obama’s Cabinet, and whether he might be able to fill the seat with someone else in exchange for campaign cash or a high-paying job after he leaves government.
The friendly relationship between Blagojevich and Pritzker reaches back at least a decade earlier, when Pritzker unsuccessfully ran for a North Side congressional seat. Blagojevich, then in Congress, publicly applauded Pritzker’s candidacy and promised big things in his future.
Lamenting that Pritzker’s immense inherited wealth — Forbes puts his worth at $3.4 billion — may have stirred prejudice that hindered his candidacy, Blagojevich made a prediction.
“We are going to hear a lot more from J.B. Pritzker, because ultimately, in the long haul, quality will emerge, (as will) J.B.’s knowledge of issues and his commitment to those issues. This was a good first start and I think J.B. has a tremendous future. Remember, Abraham Lincoln didn’t win his first election and Mario Cuomo lost several races before he got elected. For J.B., this is only the beginning,” the future governor said in a May 1998 Tribune profile of Pritzker.
In January 2006, when Blagojevich found himself in hot water over his plan to use taxpayer money to rebuild fire-damaged Pilgrim Baptist Church in Bronzeville, Pritzker bolstered the governor’s initiative by donating $500,000 from his family’s foundation to the cause.
A few months later, Pritzker wrote an opinion piece in the Tribune praising Blagojevich’s “All Kids” and “Preschool For All Children” programs as a potential national model in early childhood intervention programs. At the time, Blagojevich was struggling to shape his image as a progressive governor while journalists were beginning to raise questions about his fundraising activities — a line of inquiry that eventually led to his downfall.
In late October 2006, Blagojevich announced a $1 million state grant to help build the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. Pritzker was a chief fundraiser for the museum.
Pritzker’s wealth and willingness to contribute to Democratic candidates already had opened many doors for him by the time he became politically close with Blagojevich — who was obsessed with raising campaign cash, was jealous of Obama and dreamed of one day running for president.
Pritzker and wife Mary Kay are top Illinois campaign donors. Since the early 1990s, they have given more than $9 million to state political campaigns, according to Illinois campaign finance records. Other members of the sprawling Pritzker clan have made their own, separate donations to political campaigns.
From 2002 to 2006, J.B. and Mary Kay Pritzker donated at least $140,000 to Blagojevich’s bids for governor.
And in one of the calls, Blagojevich made it clear he’d like to see Pritzker give more.
Pritzker already had raised the idea of being named state treasurer if an opening occurred, and he followed up during a Nov. 14, 2008, call with the governor.
“I’ve got a lot of reasons why it makes sense. The problem for you would be the same problem with the Senate really,” Pritzker said. “I’ve given you contributions.”
“Total nonissue,” Blagojevich replied. “First of all, you give money to everybody, like (Attorney General) Lisa Madigan, OK?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, no question,” Pritzker said.
“Which, incidentally, if you can do for me what you did for her, before the end of the year. Can you think about that?” Blagojevich asked, aware that Pritzker had donated $50,000 to Madigan during the previous year.
“I can’t, I mean, not while everything’s up in the air, but I hear ya,” Pritzker said. “I hear ya and, and and … But anyway …”
“If we go in that direction, though, if that does happen, I mean there’s some other people who can help us that you know,” Blagojevich said.
“Sure,” Pritzker said.
“If you feel skittish about that, which I believe you shouldn’t, but go ahead,” Blagojevich said.
“Yeah,” Pritzker replied, “I don’t think we should even talk about it but I understand what you’re saying.”
Earlier in that same call, Blagojevich talked about Pritzker’s qualifications for treasurer that included “banking and financial experience and know-how.”
“Yeah, I don’t know about banking, right?” Pritzker said. “You throw my sister (Penny) and Superior Bank in.”
“What happened to her bank?” Blagojevich asked. “Did it collapse or something?”
“Yeah, she was chairman of the bank,” Pritzker said. “It had subprime loans. I mean bad stuff.”
“Superior Bank turned out to be an inferior bank,” the governor remarked.
“Inferior. Exactly, exactly. Very good,” Pritzker said. “I like that. Inferior Bank. I haven’t thought about that. That’s a good one.”
‘Talk to me’
Throughout the fall, Blagojevich considered multiple candidates for Obama’s Senate seat, including U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., Attorney General Madigan, Obama adviser Jarrett and Pritzker.
Pritzker wasn’t interested in the Senate seat, agreeing with Blagojevich’s view that politically, it made sense to appoint an African-American to succeed Obama. In addition, Pritzker would have been viewed as a placeholder serving for two years until the 2010 election.
Pritzker didn’t close the door at that point, and in one call he outlined what he thought Blagojevich’s argument could be for selecting him for Senate.
“In other words, if the announcement was you’re doing this because it’s a good government move, because this is going to be a terrible couple of years, that you need somebody with financial expertise, and someone who’s above politics and not running for it and not beholden to anybody and, you know, whose only interest is in fixing the economy and so on,” Pritzker said.
“That’s the only argument,” he continued. “So, I leave you with that. I agree with you. I think it’s problematic for the press and everybody else, they’ll look for something even if there’s nothing there.”
At one point, the call was dropped. The two reconnected moments later.
Pritzker indicated he was more interested in being treasurer. Blagojevich said he was keeping an open mind but asked Pritzker not to rule himself out for the Senate seat.
“The treasurer thing is a different thing,” Pritzker said.
“Yeah, oh, this is a good option,” Blagojevich said. “Keep going. Talk to me.”
“There it’s putting a businessperson in a businessperson’s job,” Pritzker said.
Pritzker said he thought he “would be able to get” two prominent Chicago businessmen — William Brodsky, then the head of the Chicago Board Options Exchange, and Terry Duffy, executive chairman of the CME Group — to take the idea public by “independently” saying that Pritzker would make an ideal treasurer. (In a Nov. 14 conversation, Pritzker indicated he had called both businessmen.)
“It’s a brand-new idea here,” said Pritzker. “But I throw that out at ya. And finally, look, even if none of those things makes sense for ya. I’d love to help you in any way I can, you know, with any decision-making you decide, you know, that you’re going to get involved in.
“For whatever it’s worth, you know, some of the players I know, um, and I would be happy to act as a little bit as an intermediary with the people that you don’t want to have it, or the people you do want to have it, or whatever,” Pritzker continued. “So, I just offer myself and my service to you.”
Brodsky and Duffy were not immediately available for comment.
Blagojevich noted that if he were to appoint Lisa Madigan to the Senate, then he would have an attorney general spot to fill.
“Are you a lawyer?” Blagojevich asked.
“Yeah,” Pritzker replied.
“There’s an AG that I appoint.”
“Ooh, that’s interesting,” Pritzker said.
“I mean I’m not promising,” Blagojevich replied. “I’m just saying these are all scenarios.”
‘Out of the running’
In the end, there was no such opportunity for Pritzker. Giannoulias did not leave the treasurer’s office for Washington. He ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2010 but lost to Republican Mark Kirk. Lisa Madigan decided to remain Illinois attorney general, where she still serves and has said she will seek a fifth term. The Senate appointment ended up going to former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris at the last minute.
During Blagojevich’s corruption trial in 2010, prosecutors played wiretaps in which he discussed with staff appointing Pritzker to the Senate in exchange for being picked to lead a private foundation financed by Pritzker and his wealthy buddies.
In a recorded call with then-adviser Doug Scofield on Nov. 11, 2008, Blagojevich said Pritzker could easily raise “10, 15, 20 million dollars.”
“I betcha J.B. can raise me money like that,” Blagojevich said. “If I can get J.B. to do somethin’ like that, is it worth, ah, givin’ him the Senate seat? Incidentally, he, he asked me for it. Don’t repeat that.”
Pritzker did not directly ask for the Senate appointment on the calls the Tribune obtained. Federal authorities did not call Pritzker as a witness at either of Blagojevich’s two trials, nor did they accuse him of any wrongdoing.
Three days later, Pritzker and Blagojevich were recorded talking about the possibility of the governor seeking re-election, assuming, Pritzker said, there were “no legal problems.”
“So, I think you’ve got a lot to run on,” Pritzker said. “It’s just, we’ve got to get the legal thing behind you.”
Blagojevich went on to say: “Yeah, but there’s statutes of limitations and things, and those dates are running. And those things will come and go long before there’s a re-election. … And then it will just fade away. Then you can say it.”
On Dec. 3, 2008, Pritzker called Blagojevich’s cellphone to see how he was “holding up under all the Senate pressure,” according to a transcript of the conversation the Tribune obtained. The Tribune does not have audio of that call. Blagojevich, according to the transcript, said that he had not ruled out Pritzker for the Senate seat.
“I would like to officially pull myself out of the running,” Pritzker responded.
Six days later, on Dec. 9, FBI agents arrested Blagojevich.