Watching fall of Blagojevich

Bernard Sieracki

“I thought it was the most momentous thing that had ever happened for the Illinois Legislature,” Bernard Sieracki, adjunct professor of public administration, says of the rapid fall of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. — Photo: Jenny Fontaine

Bernard Sieracki was a rapt witness to the rapid fall of Rod Blagojevich.

He sat through all four days of investigative hearings by the Illinois House, and all four days of the Illinois governor’s trial in the Senate.

“Every minute,” Sieracki recalls.

“About four years later, I realized that no one had done anything about this time, the eight weeks between his arrest and removal.

“I thought it was the most momentous thing that had ever happened for the Illinois Legislature.

“I thought I wanted to do something with this. And that something turned out to be the book.”

A Just Cause: The Impeachment and Removal of Governor Rod Blagojevich was published in December.

Sieracki, adjunct professor of public administration, tackled the formidable task of interviewing the drama’s many players. He talked with nearly 60 of them, averaging more than two hours with each.

That included six hours with David Ellis, now an appellate court judge, the House prosecutor who presented the case against Blagojevich to the Senate.

A longtime lobbyist in Springfield, “I knew everyone involved,” Sieracki said.

The book features an anecdote about Blagojevich’s last day as governor, Jan. 29, 2009, when he was escorted to the floor of the Senate chamber.

His escort was now-Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, then chief of staff to Senate President John Cullerton.

“Andy Manar reached for the door to the Senate,” Sieracki writes. “Before he could open it, however, the governor reached over and put his hand on Manar’s forearm. Looking straight at Manar, Blagojevich said, ‘Andy, I didn’t do anything wrong.’

“‘Governor, you don’t have to convince me,’ Manar replied. ‘You have to convince those 59 people out there.’ He opened the door, and Rod Blagojevich walked onto the Senate floor.”

The senators heard about the governor’s attempts to solicit contributions from horse-racing track officials in exchange for Blagojevich signing legislation to benefit the tracks.

Contributions also were sought from road contractors, with Blagojevich promising a larger tollway improvement program, and from hospital officials before the governor would release money for a children’s hospital.

Addressing the senators, Blagojevich tried to justify the remarks they’d heard on tape about the horse-racing bill.

“You guys are in politics,” he said. “Those are conversations relating to the things all of us in politics do in order to run campaigns and try to win elections.”

Sieracki writes, “The senators were stunned by the remarks….

“The governor was telling the Senate that extortion and coercion were business as usual in public service, in politics. He was telling the senators that they all did it.

“With that one remark, it seemed to many that Blagojevich sealed his fate.”

The vote to remove him from office was unanimous.

Blagojevich went on to be convicted in two federal trials and is now serving a 14-year prison sentence.

“I felt someone had to tell this story,” Sieracki said. “I wanted someone to be able to go to a library 100 years from now — if we still have libraries — and get this book and be able to be right there, to be able to see what I was seeing.”

Sieracki grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood. He earned a bachelor’s in history from Roosevelt University, a master’s in political science from UIC, and a Ph.D. in public administration from UIC.

One of his first jobs was to manage the successful campaign of Don A. Moore, later a judge, for state senator. Then he was a public affairs rep for Standard Oil of Indiana for two years.

He spent the next 10 years as director of the Chicago office of the American Petroleum Institute, then became Midwest vice president of government affairs for Waste Management, also for 10 years.

He opened his own lobbying firm, Business Government Relations, operating it for 15 years until five years ago when he began teaching full-time at UIC and IIT. He commutes from Springfield.

His wife, Mary Alice, is administrative assistant to Illinois Senate Democrats. Son Nathan is a biochemist in Deerfield, and son Nicholas is an engineer with Dolby Sound in Los Angeles.

Sieracki is working on a new book. Its working title: Populism to Progressivism: Illinois in the Gilded Age — the years following the Civil War to 1910.

“It’s about Illinois men on the make in a period of exploding economic activity,” he said, “but also a time when there was a terrible depression every three or four years.”

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