Rod Blagojevich, the ex-Illinois governor, went on trial again in Chicago on charges he tried to trade an appointment to the U.S. senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama for campaign cash and personal favors.
“This is a case about a governor who betrayed the people of Illinois,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Niewoehner told jurors in his opening statement today. “The governor of Illinois was shaking people down.”
Last year’s trial ended with Blagojevich convicted of lying to federal agents while jurors deadlocked on 23 other counts. Prosecutors have since dropped racketeering claims against the ex-governor and all charges against his brother and one-time campaign finance chief, Robert.
Still, the twice-elected Democrat stands accused of 10 wire fraud counts plus charges of attempted extortion and extortion conspiracy, conviction for any one of which could result in a 20-year prison sentence. He’s also accused of bribery.
Blagojevich, 54, has said repeatedly that he’s innocent of the charges. U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel declined to act on a March 9 defense request to sentence the ex-governor on the one count for which he was found guilty and skip the retrial.
The crime of knowingly making false statements to government agents carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
‘Sound and Fury’
“This is a tale of sound and fury signifying nothing,” defense attorney Aaron Goldstein, paraphrasing a soliloquy from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, told the panel of 12 jurors and six alternates who will hear the evidence against his client.
“Don’t be fooled and don’t be intimidated,” Goldstein said. “Don’t get sucked into their ‘throw everything against the wall and see what sticks’ approach,” he said of the prosecutors’ case.
Blagojevich was arrested by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in December 2008, just weeks after Obama had defeated Republican nominee John McCain in a national election. The ex-governor was later accused of trying to trade various official acts for campaign cash.
A former chief of staff to the governor, John Harris, pleaded guilty to a single count of bribery conspiracy and testified against Blagojevich. The former governor didn’t take the stand at the first trial.
Niewoehner, one of three deputy prosecutors returning from the prior trial, portrayed the former governor in the months leading up to his arrest as short on campaign cash and mired in personal debt.
“He decided to sell the senate seat to solve his problem,” the assistant U.S. attorney said.
“He first tried to shake down President Barack Obama,” by asking an intermediary to convey an offer to appoint future presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett as senator in exchange for being appointed secretary of health and human services, a cabinet post, Niewoehner said.
The ex-governor then wanted a salaried leadership position with a nonprofit organization.
“Nobody was playing ball,” the prosecutor said.
Niewoehner also told the jurors that Blagojevich engaged in four other “shakedown” schemes, including plots to wring campaign money from an Illinois racetrack owner, the head of the state’s asphalt paving trade association, a hospital executive and the brother of former Chicago congressman, now- mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel.
When Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel, Rahm’s brother, didn’t hold a fundraiser for the ex-governor, Blagojevich decided to punish the school by forcing it through “a 5-step process” to get the $2 million grant it was seeking, Niewoehner said.
The prosecutor said the ex-governor tied other official acts to his receipt of campaign contributions, telling jurors that while Blagojevich was typically unsuccessful, the crime was in the asking.
Goldstein seized on those results in delivering his own opening remarks, in which he said, “Rod likes to talk a lot. He talks and he talks and he talks.”
“Ask yourself,” he told the panel, “What ended up happening? Absolutely nothing!” The Chicago school got its money, Goldstein said, while his client got nothing.
‘No Shakedown Here’
“There was no shakedown here,” the defense lawyer said.
Chicago’s mayor-elect was one of several emissaries of then President-elect Obama, who were “bombarding” Blagojevich to select Jarrett, said Goldstein.
“Rod wasn’t attempting to do anything,” Goldstein said.
Selection of jurors for the retrial started April 20 and spanned six days. Some of the prospective jurors questioned said they believed Blagojevich to be guilty.
Those chosen to be regular and alternate jurors include 15 women and three men. Zagel ordered their identities be kept anonymous until after they render a verdict.
A lone juror last year stymied efforts by the other 11 panelists to convict Blagojevich on charges relating to his alleged bartering of Obama’s senate seat, Stephen Wlodek, who was a member of that jury, told Bloomberg News in a phone interview after the verdict.
“We just could not sway her out of what her opinion was,” said Wlodek, a human resources manager from suburban Bartlett, Illinois. “I don’t think justice was served. I think he was guilty.”
The case is U.S. v. Blagojevich, 08-cr-00888, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).
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