James Warren watches the former Illinois governor try to defend himself against corruption charges
Amid cheers, tears, and crying infants, American idealism was on display on July 6 in a Chicago federal courtroom where 91 immigrants took the oath of citizenship. "This is great. It's the land of opportunity," said Marius Ilie, a 27-year-old AT&T data analyst from Romania. It's too bad Marius couldn't stop by the adjacent courtroom for a glimpse of U.S. v. Blagojevich to see just how much opportunity.
Rod Blagojevich, the foul-mouthed, puffy-haired former Illinois governor, stands accused of corruption, including an attempt to sell President Barack Obama's former Senate seat. He's an undeniably entertaining spectacle: What other defendant would pause on his way into court to ask a reporter, "How's the suit?"
The prosecution has tried to show that, like Tony Soprano, the governor and three top aides referred to themselves in code ("1," "2," "3," and "4") as they mulled diverting state revenues into personal accounts. Blagojevich obsessed over fundraisers and berated those who didn't meet their goals—revealing initial claims to the FBI of a "firewall" between government and politics to be a lie. He pumped iron while suggesting he might pick Oprah Winfrey to replace Obama in the Senate, knowing she would demur but that it would draw attention to himself. ("It's going to be huge.")
Blagojevich is such a needy defendant that he hogs all the scandal for himself. It's a shame, since there's plenty of notoriety to go around. It's all there on FBI wiretaps and in witness testimony: finder's fees for procuring state business, money-driven access to the Governor—some of which results in the creation of dubious public policy. Shady characters are everywhere at this trial—little-known middlemen such as Robert Kjellander, a former Republican National Committee treasurer who thrives in the shadow world between government and commerce. In 2003, Blagojevich selected Bear Stearns as lead underwriter of a $10 billion bond deal meant to prop up the state's ailing pension funds, part of which prosecutors say was a kickback scheme by the governor and top aides aimed at securing their financial futures. Bear Stearns made $8 million in fees and gave $809,000 to Kjellander, its Illinois lobbyist. What he actually did to earn that check is unclear; neither prosecutors nor defense lawyers are able to explain it.
What he did after getting paid is clearer. Kjellander loaned $600,000 of his fee to the owner of a struggling pizza parlor who happened to be a friend of Antoin "Tony" Rezko—who in turn was a friend of Blagojevich. (Rezko's been in jail since 2008 awaiting sentencing for fraud and money laundering.) Rezko then had the pizza man, who was granted immunity to testify, transfer funds to Rezko's creditors. Kjellander, in an FBI interview, says he didn't ask for collateral or financial statements and that he was repaid with interest. Neither Kjellander nor Bear Stearns is accused of any wrongdoing.
Blagojevich was the sun around which planet-sized middlemen orbited. Alonzo "Lon" Monk, the governor's law school roommate and chief of staff between 2003 and 2005, earned more than a million dollars as a lobbyist for the cable TV industry and construction firms, among others. A Chicago harness-track owner paid him $150,000 a year, only to face a shakedown for a Blagojevich campaign contribution. One hears Monk and Blagojevich scheming about not signing a bill, passed to help the racing industry, unless the owner forks over a fat donation. The owner, who had already contributed $320,000 to the governor over six years, testified that he wondered whom the lobbyist was really working for when cornered for a contribution in a stairwell. He decided not to write a check, and it's a good thing, too, since the shakedown was built on a lie: Blagojevich lacked the power to stop the racing bill from taking effect. The track owner got his $1.5 million a year in subsidies; Monk got two years for conspiracy to solicit a bribe.
It's tough to draw conclusions about how government works from the Blagojevich trial. The man really is a once-in-a-lifetime politician. Still, Blagojevich's calendar shows how easily donors and fund-raisers can dominate a governor's time. Tom Balanoff, Chicago leader of the Service Employees International Union, got meetings with the governor seemingly whenever he desired, often with scant warning. SEIU contributed nearly $2 million to his two campaigns, and Balanoff threatened to pull support when Blagojevich once "blew me off." It wasn't just Blagojevich who thought everything in government was for sale.
Blagojevich is a scoundrel, though there are court-room moments that reveal a misguided patriotism. The first-generation son of Serbian immigrants is caught on tape hoping that if he dispenses Obama's old Senate seat shrewdly he might get "a ride on Air Force One" or "spend the night in the Lincoln bedroom." At trial's end, let's hope Blagojevich will restore our faith in at least one American institution: the criminal justice system.