Rod Blagojevich, the impeached former governor of Illinois, is betting he will be acquitted of corruption charges if jurors are allowed to hear unedited versions of federal wiretaps of his conversations.
Jury selection starts tomorrow in Chicago federal court. The twice-elected Democrat was first indicted last year for seeking favors or campaign cash in exchange for his power to appoint an Illinois U.S. Senate replacement for President Barack Obama.
Prosecutors plan to reveal some of the former governor’s conversations that were captured on court-authorized wiretaps. Blagojevich has said he wants all of the tapes played. U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel will decide how much of the recordings the jury will hear.
“Each one is a little story unto itself,” said former assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Cramer, who’s now the managing director of Kroll Inc. in Chicago.
Blagojevich is accused of attempting to enrich himself. The allegations of trading Obama’s Senate seat are part of a 24-count indictment including charges of wire fraud, racketeering and attempted extortion, carrying top sentences of 20 years imprisonment.
In February, Blagojevich, 53, pleaded “innocent to each and every charge.” Zagel told prospective jurors the trial will last at least three months.
Blagojevich is the second consecutive Illinois governor to stand trial on criminal charges. Republican predecessor George Ryan was convicted in 2006 of trading state contracts for gifts, trips and cash. Ryan, 76, is serving a 6 1/2-year prison sentence in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Prosecutors may present testimony from John Harris, Blagojevich’s former chief of staff, with whom he was arrested in December 2008. After his client pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge on May 14, defense attorney Terry Ekl said Harris will make an “outstanding” witness.
Harris’s predecessor, Alonzo “Lon” Monk, also may testify. He pleaded guilty April 30 to conspiracy to solicit a $100,000 bribe. Plea agreements for both men say they will cooperate with prosecutors.
It was Monk’s voice that lawmakers heard on a recording played for the Illinois Senate during the governor’s impeachment trial.
Lawmakers heard Monk and Blagojevich discuss the solicitation of a campaign contribution from a horse track operator, who was to pay before the governor signed a bill diverting casino revenue to the racing industry.
Testimony by Harris or Monk could be damaging, said Cramer and white-collar criminal defense attorney and one-time federal prosecutor James Montana, particularly vignettes such as the racetrack affair and the senate seat sale.
To avoid conviction, the defense must be able to explain the governor’s voice on the wiretaps and corroborating witnesses’ testimony, Montana and Cramer each said.
Blagojevich’s lawyer, Sam Adam Jr., said in March that as the tapes are played, the public will learn his client wasn’t doing anything different from other politicians.
“I’d vote for him again,” Adam said at the time. He didn’t reply to phone and e-mail messages seeking comment for this story.
Montana, and former assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Cramer, said separately that Blagojevich isn’t likely to convince a dozen jurors he’s innocent. A guilty verdict must be unanimous.
“He doesn’t need 12. He needs one,” Cramer, one of four prosecutors who in 2007 won a fraud conviction of ex-Hollinger International Inc. Chairman Conrad Black, said in an interview.
Montana, a partner at Chicago’s Vedder Price PC, was chief counsel to Illinois Governor Jim Edgar, who preceded Ryan. Edgar, a Republican, served two terms without being indicted.
“We would have never had the types of discussions Blagojevich had, with Governor Edgar,” Montana said in an interview last week. “This just would have never happened.”
The trial will proceed as Governor Pat Quinn and Alexi Giannoulias, a nominee for Obama’s former seat, campaign for election in November.
U.S. senators Richard Durbin of Illinois and Harry Reid of Nevada said they received defense subpoenas seeking their testimony. U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. of Chicago has also been summoned to appear. All are Democrats.
Jackson, through an attorney, said in 2008 that he believed he was one of the unnamed candidates mentioned in the original criminal complaint as being considered by Blagojevich for Obama’s seat. Allegations that the candidate’s backers offered the governor $1.5 million in exchange for the appointment are included in the revised indictment.
“If and when I am called, I will tell the truth and say under oath what I’ve said again and again since this shocking scandal first broke,” Jackson said in a May 14 statement. “I did nothing wrong and never authorized or engaged in any scheme related to the then-vacant Senate seat.”
The trial bodes poorly for Illinois Democrats running for election, said Thom Serafin, a Chicago political consultant who worked for the late Illinois Senator Paul Simon and presidential candidate Gary Hart.
“The Blagojevich trial is going to taint everything,” he said.
The case is U.S. v. Blagojevich, 08cr888, in the Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).