Blago Trial Day 2: Friend’s ‘Meddling’ Caused Bill Delay
Impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich switched his focus Friday during his second day on the witnesses stand from describing himself as an everyday man to seemingly pointing the fingers at others.
A less-animated Blagojevich offered nitty-gritty, often laborious detail to jurors about the legislative process and the hardscrabble world of political fundraising. Gone were the hand gestures, emotion and long monologue about himself from the day before.
Blagojevich still did not get to most explosive allegations against him, that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat for campaign cash or a top job.
His testimony Friday centered on allegations that he tried to shake down racetrack executive John Johnston for a $100,000 campaign contribution by withholding his signature on a bill that benefited the horse-racing industry.
The twice-elected governor conceded that he was eager to get a contribution from Johnston, but when his attorney asked if he was refusing to sign the bill as a way to squeeze Johnston for money, Blagojevich denied it.
"No, I was not," he said in a firm voice. "My intention was to follow the law ... and be careful not to cross any lines."
Blagojevich also told jurors that advance commitments from would-be donors - and urging would-be donors to follow through - was critical to enabling politicians to plan ahead for hard election fights.
"This is the system we have in America," he said. "I think it is an imperfect and flawed system."
The former government appeared to suggest that two of his close friends turned top advisers, Lon Monk and Chris Kelly, may have been at least partly to blame for the perception that Blagojevich seemed to be shaking down the executive.
His attorney asked Blagojevich to explain excerpts of an FBI wiretap recording, in which Monk tells Blagojevich about having just met Johnston, pressing him for money. Blagojevich several times noted that it was Monk, not him, who went to Johnston.
Later, he talked about his late friend Chris Kelly, offering suspicions that Kelly might have been "meddling" in the racetrack legislation himself as an explanation for why Blagojevich was so slow to sign the bill.
Kelly committed suicide in 2009, days before he was to report to prison to begin a term on tax and mail fraud convictions.
Though he didn't explain in detail, Blagojevich claimed that he believed Kelly might be trying to manipulate the racetrack bill somehow in an effort to curry favor with people with supposed connections to then-President George W. Bush. Kelly's aim, Blagojevich told jurors: To get someone to ask Bush to grant Kelly a pardon and keep him out of prison.
Blagojevich said that, and not any shakedown, was his reason for delay in signing the race-track bill.
"I don't want anyone to say I am signing the bill because I am part of some scheme with Chris," Blagojevich told jurors. "I was afraid if I sign the bill, this is what they might say."
As he did on Thursday in his first day of testimony, Blagojevich frequently veered off-topic. Judge James Zagel frequently intervened.
"See if you can answer a question yes or no," he told Blagojevich at one point.
Zagel sent jurors home for the Memorial Day holiday at around noon on Friday. Defense attorneys told Zagel that Blagojevich will be called to the stand again on Tuesday and that he could remain on the stand for the defense until Thursday.
(AP Photo/Tom Gianni)