Blagojevich’s shocking covert campaign letters revealed - Chicago News and Weather | FOX 32 News

Blagojevich’s `dirty tricks' campaign letters revealed: EXCLUSIVE

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

"What was she thinking?"

TV ads featuring that memorable line were the centerpiece of Governor Rod Blagojevich's 2006 re-election campaign. The attacks on GOP challenger Judy Baar Topinka propelled Blagojevich to a second term in office. But behind the scenes, the Blagojevich campaign was engaged in another attack on Topinka--kept secret until now.

SEE: Boxes of Blagojevich's personal items, documents uncovered

FOX Chicago discovered the covert campaign in a red folder, buried in one of eleven boxes formerly owned by Blagojevich. Those boxes were sold at auction two years ago after Blagojevich didn't pay the bill on his storage locker. The west suburban man who bought the boxes tired of them sitting in his garage and turned them over to us.

The file contains copies of scores of letters to the editor apparently written by the Blagojevich campaign and sent to newspapers all across the state. The letters are signed by dozens of different people-- but all share one target: Topinka.

"It appears that Judy Baar Topinka has done more than dance the polka with former Governor George Ryan," reads one.

"Topinka has no substance," reads another.

"It was widely reported that Ms. Topinka hired a past lover, with a poor financial record," reads yet another.

We showed the findings to Illinois Republican Chairman Pat Brady. He says campaigns have been known to manufacture letters to newspapers, but never on this level.

"It's surprising to me they're this nasty, and that they were this brazen in actually doing it, recording it, documenting all this," Brady said.

The file was kept by Brian Daly, who headed Blagojevich's 2006 campaign. The chief letter-writer appears to be Beth Penesis, who also worked on the campaign. In e-mails to Daly, Penesis virtually brags about her ability to manufacture and place the letters. In several emails she puts quote marks around the word "author" when referring to the person who will sign the letter.

It appears the campaign was targeting downstate and suburban newspapers.

"A lot of small papers get very few letters, and your chances of getting a letter into a smaller paper are greater," said Don Wycliffe, a longtime newspaper journalist who now teaches at Loyola University. Wycliffe said while not illegal, using campaign staffers to ghost write political support letters "shows a measure of cynicism about the process."

In a statement to Fox Chicago, Penesis said she was simply writing draft letters and talking points that supporters could send to newspapers. "Many people who wish to show their support work with the campaign on letters; they review them and offer edits or add ideas before signing their name."

Penesis wrote some of the letters before she went on leave from her $62,000 a year job working for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Since returning to work after the campaign ended in November, 2006, she's received two promotions. One promotion came under Blagojevich's tenure, the other under Governor Pat Quinn. Penesis now makes $90,000 a year as deputy director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

We also found some of the people who agreed to front the letters were also employed by the state, and a labor leader involved in the effort got appointed to an unpaid state board. Two of the "authors" admitted they were given the letters to send to their local newspapers, but said they agreed with the sentiments.

"It just gives you another glimpse into the mind of Rod Blagojevich," said Brady. "We'll probably be finding stuff like this for the next 20 years in Illinois."

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