Rod Blagojevich, the ex-Illinois governor on trial for the second time for alleged political corruption, denied some of the charges against him in a day of testimony sprinkled with celebrity references.
Blagojevich, 54, took the witness stand for the first time in either trial, fulfilling repeated promises he made in media interviews to tell his side of the story since his 2008 arrest on charges he tried to trade President Barack Obama’s Illinois U.S. Senate seat for campaign contributions and personal favors.
“I’m Rod Blagojevich. I used to be your governor,” he said when asked by defense lawyer Aaron Goldstein to introduce himself to the jury. “I am here today to tell you the truth.”
The twice-elected Democrat is accused of 10 wire-fraud counts plus charges of attempted extortion and extortion conspiracy, a conviction for any one of which could result in a 20-year prison sentence. He’s also accused of bribery.
He mounted no defense in his first trial last year, which ended with his conviction on a single count of lying to federal agents. Jurors deadlocked on 23 other charges.
Prosecutors have since dropped two racketeering-related counts and a wire-fraud charge.
The crime of knowingly making false statements to government agents, for which last year’s jury found him guilty, carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Blagojevich hasn’t been sentenced in that case.
Strayed Off Topic
Blagojevich repeatedly strayed off topic when answering defense lawyer Goldstein’s queries, prompting objections from Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar and an admonishment to his lawyer from U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel.
“I urge you, Mr. Goldstein, for the benefit of your client, ask questions quickly,” the judge said.
Blagojevich also laced his responses with references to celebrities including actors Michael Landon, Dyan Cannon and Farrah Fawcett, real-estate developer Donald Trump, talk show host Regis Philbin and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
He denied prosecutors allegations that he attempted to “shake down” one-time U.S. Representative and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and suburban race track owner John Johnston for campaign contributions in exchange for official acts.
He also denied a claim made at the trial yesterday by U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. of Chicago, a defense witness who, on cross-examination by prosecutors, claimed Blagojevich had once demanded a $25,000 campaign contribution from him.
Jackson told the court that after he’d declined to make the donation, his wife, Sandi was passed over for a state job. When the governor and congressman next saw each other, Blagojevich said, “You should have given me that $25,000,” Jackson testified.
Johnston, according to the U.S., was solicited by former Blagojevich aide and friend Lon Monk for a $100,000 campaign contribution in exchange for the governor’s signing of 2008 legislation to divert casino revenues to the horse racing industry.
“Did you ever shake down Johnny Johnston?” Goldstein asked.
“No,” Blagojevich replied.
Blagojevich also denied withholding a $2 million grant to a school in then-Congressman Emanuel’s Chicago district, as leverage to compel the mayor’s brother and Hollywood agent, Ari Emanuel, to hold a campaign fundraiser.
Blagojevich spent much of the morning telling jurors about his upbringing in a five-room Chicago apartment where he lived with his father Rade, mother Millie and older brother Robert.
He said he’d dreamed of being a professional baseball player, yet in his sole 20-game Little League season, he had one hit in 12 times at bat, compiling an .083 batting average.
“The coach would exile me to right field because that’s where the fewest balls were hit,” the former governor said. That didn’t dissuade him from trying out, unsuccessfully, for his high school team.
After high school, he worked on the Alaska pipeline, a fact Blagojevich said he’d shared with Palin when the two met about a week before his arrest in 2008.
‘Propensity to Dream’
“I picked up my dad’s propensity to dream,” Blagojevich said, his voice catching as he added that his father died in 1989 and didn’t live to see his son elected to public office.
His mother, who died in 1999, saw her son start his political career.
“Like most mothers, she would have preferred I was in another business,” Blagojevich said.
Blagojevich said he graduated from Northwestern University, in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, with a degree in history.
After college, Blagojevich took jobs including pizza delivery and working for the Helene Curtis Industries Inc. cosmetics company, which gave him free shampoo. He then attended law school at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.
He described his first year in law school as “almost catastrophic,” and said he was put on academic probation. Distractions, including seeing Landon, Cannon and Fawcett training at his local health club, made for an atmosphere that “was not that conducive to studying law.”
When Goldstein asked him to explain his pompadour hairstyle, Blagojevich said it was “a remnant of the 1970s disco culture, a time in which “a hairbrush is an extension of your right hand.”
“That hasn’t changed,” Blagojevich said.
His testimony is set to continue tomorrow.
The case is U.S. v. Blagojevich, 08-cr-00888, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).
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