Blagojevich Recounts His Biography in Meandering Testimony
Ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich told jurors Thursday about his life and blue collar roots while testifying at his corruption retrial in Chicago.
Introducing himself to jurors, he said, "I used to be your governor" and "I'm here today to tell you the truth."
The testimony has been mostly autobiographical, though at times Blagojevich has made obvious attempts to link this background to the federal charges he now faces.
He proceeded to talk about his upbringing in a working-class Chicago neighborhood. Blagojevich spoke in a low voice and remembered his first hit in little league baseball. Jurors watched him intently.
Blagojevich described his first jobs as a shoeshine boy and then working in a packing company. He talked about his father leaving home to work on the Alaskan pipeline. Blagojevich said he also worked on the pipeline, washing pots and pans.
Blagojevich's voice broke when he spoke about his deceased parents. He later choked up when he began to tell the story of how he met his wife, Patti. That prompted Judge James Zagel to send the jury out of the room, and call for a lunch break.
Earlier, Blagojevich addressed his days as an undergrad at Northwestern University. He told jurors that he often felt inferior compared to other students. But he said he got good grades, and was a history buff.
"I had a man crush on Alexander Hamilton," Blagojevich said.
In talking about Winston Churchill and how leaders made decisions, the ex-governor offered a preview of his defense to the corruption charges he faces, some of which are based off secretly taped phone calls with his aides.
Blagojevich said, like Churchill, he believes in "full discussion," that leaders "should be free" to bounce ideas off advisers, to "end up in the right place."
Later, talking about law school, Blagojevich said he applied to a number of top schools, including Harvard University. The rejection letter, he said, "came back pretty quick." Blagojevich eventually went to Pepperdine University in California. His first year, he said, was "almost catastrophic," because he wanted to read history books instead of law books.
Blagojevich attorney Aaron Goldstein asked him about his friendship with Lon Monk. Monk is a former Blagojevich aide who testified against him in exchange for a lighter sentence for himself.
Blagojevich said he met Monk while studying abroad in England during law school, and it developed into "a lifelong, very close friendship."
He talked about how different his upbringing and family were Monk's, whose father was a successful California obstetrician and gynecologist. Blagojevich said he "became very close" with Monk's family. He said they had a "beautiful house...with peacocks in the back yard."
"I love Lon Monk," Blagojevich said of his once-close friend. Asked if he trusted him, the ex-governor said, "Absolutely. Infinitely."
The ex-governor talked about how he worked as a paralegal for Ed Vrdolyak, at the time a lawyer and Chicago alderman.
"I didn't do a lot of law," Blagojevich said, noting that his job consisted of doing campaign work for, among others, then-Mayor Jane Byrne, and picking up cheesecakes for the alderman's driver.
Blagojevich said Vrdolyak later reneged on a promise to hire him, and again on a promise to get him a job with the Cook County State's Attorney's office. He was hired anyway, working in the office while Richard M. Daley was state's attorney.
"While he was my boss, I never saw him," said Blagojevich. He talked about his work in the traffic division, and later on domestic violence cases.
No doubt in an effort to make sure the jury knew he was not professionally familiar with the laws he is accused of breaking, Blagojevich attorney Aaron Goldstein asked the ex-governor a series of questions about his struggles to pass the bar exam, and his experience in private practice. Blagojevich testified that he never worked on any federal case, nonetheless one involving the fraud or extortion statutes.
Blagojevich's attorney cited his tendency for profanity. Blagojevich then apologized directly to jurors. He said when you hear the curses and swear words, "it makes you wince." Blagojevich called himself a jerk for swearing.
Once his own attorneys are done questioning him, Blagojevich is sure to face blistering cross-examination from the government. Prosecutors are likely to replay FBI wiretaps that captured his blunt talk.
Blagojevich's testimony comes on the heels of a terrible day in court for the defense Wednesday.
They called Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to the stand. He testified for only four minutes. They also called Jesse Jackson Jr. who said he never offered Blagojevich money in return for being appointed to Barack Obama's old senate seat.
But under cross examination by prosecutors, Jackson offered up a whole new allegation of extortion. He says Blagojevich asked for a $25,000 dollar campaign contribution, but Jackson didn't pay. Later, Jackson's wife, Chicago Ald. Sandi Jackson, applied for, but was denied a job in the Blagojevich administration. At a subsequent meeting Jackson says the governor referred to the job, then snapped his fingers and pointed in an Elvis-like way and said, "You should have given me that $25,000."
Jurors wouldn't have heard this story if Blagojevich's lawyers hadn't called Jackson to the stand. The anecdote is like an additional criminal count against the former governor, compliments of his own defense team.
Blagojevich's attorneys didn't call any witnesses during his first trial last year. That jury deadlocked on 23 of 24 counts, including allegations that Blagojevich tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat.
(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)