Blagojevich Tried to `Shake Down' Obama, Jury in Corruption Trial Is Told
Rod Blagojevich is guilty of crimes that include plotting to sell President Barack Obama’s former senate seat, a prosecutor told a federal court jury in Chicago during closing arguments at the Illinois ex-governor’s trial.
“He tried to shake down President-elect Barack Obama,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Niewoehner said, referring to an alleged scheme to gain something of value in exchange for naming presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett to the seat.
Blagojevich conspired with his brother and codefendant Robert Blagojevich and members of his inner circle to profit from his office, Niewoehner said. The siblings face up to 20 years imprisonment if convicted on the most serious charges.
The twice-elected Democrat was arrested in December 2008 and later indicted for linking official acts, including selecting the president’s Senate successor, to campaign contributions and personal favors. He was removed from office for abuse of power in January 2009 by the Illinois legislature.
U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel abruptly ended today’s proceedings just before the closing comments of the ex- governor’s lawyer, Sam Adam Jr.
Adam had told the judge he planned to talk about witnesses the prosecution didn’t call. When Zagel told him not to, Adam said he’d disobey at the risk of being jailed.
“If you don’t follow the order, you’ll be in contempt,” Zagel said. The failure of one side to call witnesses either side could have called isn’t evidence, the judge said.
Adam, who has been allotted 2 1/2 hours to deliver his remarks, is now slated to close tomorrow.
The judge has said he will rule on a defense motion for acquittal after the closings. Blagojevich lawyers argued that the case was too weak to send to the jury.
Rod Blagojevich arrived at the court this morning with his wife, Patti, and their daughters, Amy, 14, and Annie, 7. He paused to sign autographs before going into the courtroom.
Spectators filled the courtroom and an overflow room, where live audio was piped in. Niewoehner spoke for more than two hours.
“I’ve got this thing, and it’s effing golden, and I’m not giving it up for effing nothing,” Niewoehner said, quoting the governor’s words from a wiretap recording played at the trial. “This thing” referred to the Senate appointment.
“It was about him, the defendant, Rod Blagojevich, and not the people of Illinois,” Niewoehner told the 12 jurors and five alternates.
Bribery, the heart of the case, doesn’t require an exchange of money, Niewoehner said. All that’s needed is a direct or indirect request for something of value in exchange for an official act, he said. “Attempts count,” he said.
Robert Blagojevich, 54, led the governor’s campaign finance committee in 2008. He testified for two days. His brother’s lawyer, Michael Ettinger, called his client “a person of honor” who had no criminal intent and asked the jury to acquit.
Ettinger told jurors his client had no knowledge of any illegality and simply wanted to help his brother.
Rod Blagojevich discussed a quid pro quo for the Jarrett appointment with a union leader, Tom Balanoff, whom he wanted to relay the request to the president, the prosecutor said.
“Talking is the crime here,” Niewoehner said. “He tried to shake down President-elect Barack Obama” for an appointment as U.S. secretary of health and human services or the head of a nonprofit organization, he the prosecutor said.
In the arguments last week on dismissal of the case, Rod Blagojevich’s attorney Lauren Kaeseberg said the government’s evidence was about discussions, not actions.
“What they’ve shown is a lot of talk,” she said on July 21. The former governor did not to testify. His lawyers rested their case without calling him or any other witnesses.
Among the witnesses alluded to by prosecutors and not called were former Blagojevich fundraiser Antoin “Tony” Rezko, who was convicted for fraud in 2008 and Stuart Levine, a former member of two state boards, who admitted to fraud and testified against Rezko.
Adam told Zagel he “cannot effectively represent” the ex- governor without mentioning missing witnesses in his closing.
“It doesn’t mean anything in and of itself,” Zagel replied, “It’s just something floating around,” inviting the jury to find against the lawyer who failed to present the witnesses.
The case is U.S. v. Blagojevich, 08-cr-00888, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).
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