President-elect Barack Obama declared Thursday he was "absolutely certain" his staff members engaged in no dealmaking concerning the filling of his former Senate seat, and he announced an investigation into whether they had contacts with anyone on the subject.
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested Tuesday, accused of using his authority to choose Obama's replacement in the Senate to barter for campaign cash or a lucrative job inside or outside government. The governor has ignored calls for his resignation and declared his innocence. He retains the power to appoint a Senate successor to Obama.
The president-elect said he was "as appalled and disappointed as anybody" by the allegations. He said that neither he nor his transition team have been a part of the continuing federal investigation, using language that was very specific but left several questions unanswered.
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"I have not been contacted by any federal officials and we have not been interviewed by them," Obama said.
He had called a news conference Thursday to introduce former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle as his choice to be secretary of health and human services, and he also lobbied for congressional passage of short-term loans to rescue the U.S. auto industry.
But all but one of the four questions posed to the president-elect by reporters dealt with the scandal that has rocked Illinois politics as well as Obama's so-far widely praised preparations to move into the White House.
Obama aimed to put an end to persistent questions about whether any of his staff were involved in Blagojevich's alleged schemes. Obama said he himself never spoke to the Illinois governor about the choosing of his successor. And he addressed for the first time the issue of whether his transition staff had any contacts.
He did not offer a definitive denial, saying he wanted to "gather all the facts" about that and expected to know more in the next few days.
But he was definitive about whether his staff had any involvement in Blagojevich's attempted wheeling and dealing.
"What I'm absolutely certain about is that our office had no involvement in any dealmaking around my Senate seat. That I'm absolutely certain of," he said. "That would be a violation of everything that this campaign has been about. And that's not how we do business."
In addressing the issue, the usually smooth-talking Obama occasionally stuttered or stumbled.
Nothing in the federal complaint suggests any wrongdoing by Obama or his staff. But the accusations against Blagojevich are an unwelcome distraction to the presidential transition, bringing fresh attention to some of the unsavory characters that have connections, however distant, to Obama and to questions of whether he can follow through on his message of change and clean government.
Obama noted that Blagojevich himself was quoted in the criminal complaint, compiled in large part from wiretaps on the governor's phones, criticizing Obama in colorful, vulgar language for being unlikely to help him.
"As is reflected in the U.S. attorney's report, we were not, I think, perceived by the governor's office as amenable to any dealmaking," Obama said. "I won't quote back some of the things that were said about me. This is a family program, I know."
Obama called again on Blagojevich to resign.
"I think the public trust has been violated," he said. "I do not think that the governor at this point can effectively serve the people of Illinois."
With lawmakers in Illinois maneuvering to quickly take the appointment responsibility out of Blagojevich's hands, Obama did not dictate a particular solution but demanded one be found.
"This Senate seat does not belong to any politician to trade," he said. "Any vacancy will be filled in an appropriate way, so that whoever is sent to Washington is going to be fighting for the people of Illinois. I hope and expect that the leaders of the Legislature will take these steps to ensure that this is so."