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A blow for Illinois's Blagojevich in corruption case

Under threat of lengthy jail time, his former chief of staff agreed on Wednesday to be a prosecution witness.

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Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is charged with 16 counts of corruption including racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud, extortion conspiracy, attempted extortion, and making false statements to federal agents.

Nam Y. Huh/ AP/ File

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Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s campaign to clear his name of corruption charges suffered a major blow Wednesday when John Harris, his former chief of staff, entered a plea agreement with the US Attorney’s Office in Chicago. [Editor's note: ]

Mr. Harris pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud, and he pledged cooporation with prosecutors in exchange for a lighter sentence if convicted.

Mr. Blagojevich is charged with 16 counts of corruption including racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud, extortion conspiracy, attempted extortion, and making false statements to federal agents. He has insisted he is innocent of all charges.

Harris served as Blagojevich’s chief of staff from late 2005 until last December. He and the governor are among six people charged in April with 19 counts of “pervasive fraud.”

The plea agreement is the first in this case, although political insiders say that between now and the trial’s opening day in June 2010 there probably will be more.

“[Blagojevich] will soon be the last man standing,” says Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association, a watchdog group in Chicago. Mr. Shaw, who was a long-time political reporter for WLS-TV, says “this case is over” due to a growing number of cooperating witnesses who were close to Blagojevich when he was governor.

Last month, Christopher Kelly, Blagojevich’s former adviser and chief fundraiser, was sentenced to 37 months in prison on federal tax fraud charges for concealing the use of corporate funds from a roofing company he owned to cover gambling debts. Mr. Kelly is also involved in a second case in which he is charged in a kickback scheme against United Airlines and American Airlines at O'Hare International Airport. The trial for that case starts in September.

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