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ARDC panel recommends three-year suspension for Blagojevich's former chief of staff

By Bethany Krajelis | Nov 7, 2013

An attorney who served as chief of staff to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich should be suspended from the practice of law for three years, a panel of the state’s Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission’s (ARDC) Review Board recommended this week.

In a report released Wednesday, the Review Board agreed with the recommendation of the ARDC Hearing Board that John Frank Harris receive a three-year suspension for his conduct in the now-imprisoned governor’s scheme to sell President Barack Obama’s open Senate seat.

The Review Board rejected the ARDC administrator’s push for disbarment, as well as Harris’ request that his recommended suspension be imposed retroactively to the date of his April 2010 interim suspension.

The board’s recommendation will go the Illinois Supreme Court, which has the final say in disciplining attorneys. Either party could ask the high court to review the matter before imposing discipline.

The disciplinary case lodged against Harris in June 2012 stems from his guilty plea and criminal conviction for conspiracy to commit solicitation, a federal charge dealing with actions during his employment with Blagojevich, a Democrat who was ousted from office in 2009.

Harris started working for the former governor in 2005 as his chief operating officer and became chief of staff in 2006.

The ARDC accused Harris  of conspiring with and helping Blagojevich engage in corruption by “soliciting and demanding things of value for the benefit of Blagojevich and his wife in exchange for the promise of an appointment of a United States Senator.”

According to the Review Board’s report, Blagojevich “began to tire of his job as governor and began to discuss his political and economic future with [Harris]” in 2008, at which time the then-governor’s “campaign chest was dwindling and his ability to raise additional campaign funds, which also covered his legal expenses in what he knew to be a federal probe of his administration, was limited by the passage of new ethics laws.”

While Harris was not involved in most of the allegations in the criminal complaint against Blagojevich, the report notes that “he was intimately involved in what was arguably the most notable charge- the attempt by Blagojevich to obtain something of value in exchange for the appointment to the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama.”

In a phone call that was recorded by the federal government as part of its investigation into Blagojevich, the report states that “Blagojevich indicated that it was good that Obama had a preference for someone to fill the seat and asked [Harris], ‘Now, we should get something for that, couldn't I? [Harris] replied, ‘Yes.’”

Conversations between the two men became more detailed leading up and after the presidential election that Obama, an Illinois senator, won in November 2008. These conversations included Harris telling Blagojevich about alleged promises of Senate candidates to raise campaign contributions for him in exchange for the appointment.

“At no time following any of these conversations did [Harris] go to the authorities, quit his job, or tell Blagojevich that he would not assist him,” the ARDC Review Board states in its report.

It adds, “Although Blagojevich sometimes referred to [Harris] as the ‘Prince of Darkness’ because [Harris] usually dissented from what Blagojevich suggested, during the recorded phone conversations in November and December regarding the Senate appointment, [Harris] rarely dissented and instead actively engaged in the scheme.”

The Review Board also notes that in November and December of 2008, Harris learned that Blagojevich was holding up the signing of a racetrack bill passed by the Illinois legislature until someone in the racetrack industry made contributions to his campaign.

During that same time period, Blagojevich also told Harris to tell someone at the Chicago Tribune that the state would hold up financial support to the Tribune Company, as well as the sale of Wrigley Field, if the company didn’t fire members of the newspaper’s editorial board, which was critical of the then-governor.

On Dec. 9, 2008, Harris and Blagojevich were arrested. Harris was taken to the FBI’s Chicago office, where he was first asked about the Chicago Tribune matter. Once the questioning turned to the appointment of the Senate Seat, Harris refused to talk.

He eventually agreed to cooperate with the federal government and “was extremely forthcoming,” the Review Board notes in its report, saying that Harris' “cooperation was instrumental in obtaining the conviction” against Blagojevich.

Harris entered into an agreement with the government, in which he pled guilty of conspiracy to commit solicitation in exchange for his testimony against Blagojevich  and a recommendation for a lenient sentence.

Based on his cooperation with authorities, a federal judge sentenced Harris to 10 days in prison and two years of supervised release, as well as a $1,000 fine and a $100 special assessment.

Blagojevich was eventually convicted of more than a dozen criminal counts involving the attempted sale of Obama’s Senate seat, as well as lying to federal officials and engaging in illegal shakedowns for campaign contributions, and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

One of the more-well known recorded conversations over the scheme that was presented during Blagojevich’s criminal trials included the ousted governor telling his onetime deputy governor that “I've got this thing and it's (expletive) golden … I'm not just giving it up for (expletive) nothing” in regards to Obama's Senate seat.

In Harris’ disciplinary proceedings before the ARDC, a panel of the Hearing Board determined that his crime “reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer” in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Finding that Harris’ “conduct brought the legal professional into disrepute and caused the public to doubt the integrity of the bar,” the Hearing Board recommended Harris be suspended from the practice of law for three years.

The administrator of the ARDC filed exceptions to the Hearing Board’s report, pushing for Harris’ disbarment.

A panel of the Review Board disagreed and affirmed the Hearing Board’s recommendation, saying that a three-year suspension “recognizes the seriousness of the misconduct and adequately serves purposes of discipline.”

“Unquestionably, [Harris’] misconduct in knowingly and actively participating in a criminal conspiracy with the sitting governor of Illinois is serious and warrants a severe sanction,” the board’s report states. “Given that [Harris] was an attorney at the time of his participation in public corruption, his conduct is ‘particularly reprehensible.’”

The Review Board, however, wrote in its report that while Harris’ conduct warrants discipline, “we believe that [Harris’] actions were a blemish in an otherwise commendable career and we believe that, after serving a period of suspension, [Harris] will not again be before this Board.”

The panel of the Review Board was made up of Robert M. Henderson, Claire A. Manning and Keith E. Roberts Jr.

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