Illinois governor defends $1,500 birthday check

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Governor Rod Blagojevich says he did nothing wrong by accepting the gift of a big check for his daughter's birthday. It came from a friend of the governor -- whose wife was later hired for a state job.

His opponent accused the governor of hiding and avoiding questions about the $1,500 check to the family's first daughter.

The governor hasn't been hiding, but Thursday afternoon he was available for the first time since the story broke to answer questions from Chicago reporters. In a 15-minute exchange, an agitated governor said he couldn't be expected to recreate a 40-year relationship, that the gift check issue is ridiculous and there's nothing to it.

"This is a very normal, typical thing that happens between close friends and families. And it was fully disclosed," said Governor Rod Blagojevich.

The issue is a $1,500 check written as a birthday gift three years ago to the Governor's oldest daughter. It came from Mike Ascaridis who Blagojevich describes as his oldest and dearest friend.

Ascaridis' wife, Beverly, got a state job at roughly the same time the check was written. Mrs. Ascaridis was hired even though she had failed a state hiring exam.

On Thursday, the Governor acknowledged that he had asked his chief of staff at the time to see if there were any positions suitable for Mrs. Ascaridis, but he insists the birthday check had nothing to do with that.

"You're talking about a childhood friend who was like a brother to me, who are like a godparent to my kid. For anyone to suggest anything other than that is ridiculous and ludicrous," said Blagojevich.

The birthday check from 2003 was not immediately disclosed, but was part of an amended campaign disclosure that was filed last year.

The Governor repeated several times -- during persistent questioning -- that the check went into his daughter's college fund and that a gift of that size is normal among life-long friends.

So, the Governor was asked, have you written any $1,500 checks as gifts to young relatives?

"It's quite possible I could have done more than that for my nephew. And I know over the years my wife and I have contributed to the gifts of our nephews. We have two of them now," said Blagojevich.

The Governor repeated several times that the gift was properly disclosed, that no laws were broken, and he sought to turn the attention to his opponent, Judy Baar Topinka, who the Governor says is violating the law by not yet disclosing required information about some of her contributors.

The Topinka campaign says it is gathering the information its required to post, and that it is not breaking the law.

With a federal probe of state hiring underway and questions about the birthday check, the Governor was asked what toll this is all having on his campaign. He replied that it shows his administration is doing the right thing through cooperation and full disclosure.

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