Jury Convicts Ex-Ill. Gov. Blagojevich at Retrial
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Media and Illinois Public Radio)
Rod Blagojevich, who rode his talkative everyman image to two terms as Illinois governor before scandal made him a national punch line, was convicted Monday of a wide range of corruption charges, including the incendiary allegation that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's Senate seat.
The verdict was a bitter defeat for Blagojevich, who had spent 21/2 years professing his innocence on reality TV shows and later on the witness stand. His defense team had insisted that hours of FBI wiretap recordings were just the ramblings of a politician who liked to think out loud.
He faces up to 300 years in prison, although federal sentencing guidelines are sure to significantly reduce his time behind bars.
After hearing the verdict, Blagojevich turned to defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky and asked "What happened?" His wife, Patti, slumped against her brother, then rushed into her husband's arms.
Before the decision was read, the couple looked flushed, and the former governor blew his wife a kiss across the courtroom, then stood expressionless, with his hands clasped tightly.
The decision capped a long-running spectacle in which Blagojevich became famous for blurting on a recorded phone call that his ability to appoint Obama's successor to the Senate was "fucking golden" and that he wouldn't let it go "for fucking nothing."
Blagojevich, who has been free on bond since shortly after his arrest, becomes the second straight Illinois governor convicted of corruption. His predecessor, George Ryan, is now serving 61/2 years in federal prison.
The case exploded into scandal when Blagojevich was awakened by federal agents on Dec. 9, 2008, at his Chicago home and was led away in handcuffs. Federal prosecutors had been investigating his administration for years, and some of his closest cronies had already been convicted.
"The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave," U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said before a bank of television cameras after the arrest.
Blagojevich, who was also accused of shaking down businessmen for campaign contributions, was swiftly impeached and removed from office.
After his arrest, Blagojevich called federal prosecutors "cowards and liars" and challenged Fitzgerald to face him in court if he was "man enough."
Mentioned at times as a possible future FBI director, Fitzgerald pledged to retry the governor after the first jury failed to return verdicts on 23 of the 24 counts. However, they did convict Blagojevich of lying to the FBI. That charge carries a penalty of up to five years in prisons.
During the second trial, prosecutors streamlined their case, and attorneys for the former governor put on a defense - highlighted by a chatty Blagojevich taking the witness stand for seven days to portray himself as a big talker but not a criminal.
Blagojevich got the chance to redeem himself in the eyes of jurors when he testified. He spent seven days on the stand talking about his childhood and his rise to power. He was charming and funny. He also provided some reasonable counter explanations for some of the conversations he had on the recorded phone calls. But he had trouble explaining some of the tapes, including a secretly recorded call on November 7, 2008 in which Blagojevich is talking about appointing Obama's preferred candidate, Valerie Jarrett, to the Senate for a position in Obama's cabinet. He tells an adviser he wants to be the secretary of Health and Human Services.
"And if I'd get that, and, and, and if, if that was somethin' available to me and maybe it's really unrealistic, but if that was available to me I could do Valerie Jarrett in a heartbeat," Blagojevich is heard on one of the tapes.
Blagojevich simply insisted to jurors that he was not trying to trade one for the other. He said they were not connected. However, Blagojevich talked to Tom Balanoff about the Senate appointment. Balanoff was a union official who was carrying messages between the Obama and Blagojevich camps. Blagojevich admitted that he discussed both appointing Jarrett to the Senate and his own desire for a cabinet post in the same conversation.
He clearly sought to solicit sympathy. He spoke about his working-class parents and choked up recounting the day he met his wife, the daughter of a powerful Chicago alderman. He reflected on his feelings of inferiority at college where other students wore preppy "alligator" shirts. Touching on his political life, he portrayed himself as a friend of working people, the poor and elderly.
He told jurors his talk on the wiretaps merely displayed his approach to decision-making: to invite a whirlwind of ideas - "good ones, bad ones, stupid ones" - then toss the ill-conceived ones out. To demonstrate the absurdities such brainstorming could generate, he said he once considered appointing himself to the Senate seat so he could travel to Afghanistan and help hunt down Osama bin Laden.
The government offered a starkly different assessment to jurors: Blagojevich was a liar, and had continued to lie, over and over, to their faces.
Prosecutors during the second trial presented a simplified version of their case. They dropped Blagojevich's brother as a defendant and cut down on the number of charges against the ousted governor. They summoned about half as many witnesses, asked fewer questions and barely touched on topics not directly related to the charges, such as Blagojevich's lavish shopping or his erratic working habits. Many of the tapes played focused on the marquee allegation that Blagojevich tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he won the presidency in 2008.
When a prosecutor read wiretap transcripts where Blagojevich seems to speak clearly of trading the Senate seat for a job, Blagojevich told jurors, "I see what I say here, but that's not what I meant."
Lead prosecutor Reid Schar started his questioning of Blagojevich with a quick verbal punch: "Mr. Blagojevich, you are a convicted liar, correct?"
"Yes," Blagojevich eventually answered after the judge overruled a flurry of defense objections.
The proof, prosecutors said, was there on the FBI tapes played for jurors. That included his infamous rant: "I've got this thing and it's fucking golden, and I'm just not giving it up for fucking nothing. I'm not gonna do it."
Prosecutors painted a picture of Blagojevich as a desperate and selfish man who was jealous of Obama's political rise. Jurors heard one tape in which Blagojevich complains to his advisers about his lot in life: "I gotta tell ya, I don't wanna be governor for the next two years. I wanna get going. I'll, I, this has been two shitty fucking years where I'm doing the best I can trying to get through a brick wall and find ways around stuff, but it's like just screwing my family and time is passing me by and I'm stuck, it's no good. It's no good. I gotta get moving. The whole world's passing me by and I'm stuck in this fucking job as governor now. Everybody's passing me by and I'm stuck."
In that same call, Blagojevich curses Obama because the president-elect does not seem to be offering Blagojevich much in exchange for getting Jarrett appointed to the Senate.
"I mean you guys are telling me I just gotta suck it up for two years and do nothing," Blagojevich said. "Give this mother fucker, his senator. Fuck him. For nothing? Fuck him!"
Indignant one minute, laughing the next, seemingly in tears once, Blagojevich endeavored to counteract the blunt, greedy man he appeared to be on FBI wiretaps. He apologized to jurors for the four-letter words that peppered the recordings.
"When I hear myself swearing like that, I am an Fucking jerk," he told jurors.
Richard Kling, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law who watched much of the trial, said the defense had no choice but to put Blagojevich on the stand, even though doing so was risky.
"The problem was with some of his explanations," Kling said. "It reminded me of a little kid who gets his hand caught in a cookie jar. He says, 'Mommy I wasn't taking the cookies. I was just trying to protect them and to count them.'"
In addition to Blagojevich's testimony during this trial, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and former Congressman Bill Lipinski also testified.
Emanuel's four minutes on the stand had little impact, but Jackson, who was called by the defense, actually gave testimony that helped the prosecution. He said that Blagojevich had asked him for a $25,000 campaign contribution. Later, Jackson's wife applied for a job with the state but didn't get it. At a subsequent meeting in Washington D.C., Jackson said Blagojevich referred to the job and then said, "You should have given me that $25,000."
In the end, the 12 jurors in this case voted to convict the 54-year-old Blagojevich on 17 of 20 counts after deliberating nine days. Blagojevich was acquitted of soliciting bribes in the alleged shakedown of a road-building executive. The jury deadlocked on two charges of attempted extortion related to that executive and funding for a school. The forewoman, a retired church musician and liturgist, said the jury carefully went through each of the 20 counts before reaching a final verdict.
"Throughout the process we were very respectful of each other's views and opinions and as a result we feel confident we have reached a fair and just verdict," she said.
With his wife, Patti, by his side, Blagojevich spent about 30 seconds talking to reporters after the verdict was announced.
"Well, among the many lessons I've learned from this whole experience is to try to speak a little bit less, so I'm going to keep my remarks kind of short," he said. "I frankly am stunned. There's not much left to say other than we want to get home to our little girls, and talk to them and explain things to them and then try to sort things out."
Judge James Zagel has barred Blagojevich from traveling outside the area without permission. A status hearing for sentencing was set for Aug. 1.
Federal guidelines and previous sentences meted out to other corrupt Illinois politicians suggest Blagojevich could get around 10 years in prison rather than the up to 300 years in prison that he is facing. But judges have enormous discretion and can factor in a host of variables, including whether a defendant took the stand and lied. Prosecutors have said that Blagojevich did just that.
Blagojevich is not the first governor to be convicted of a crime. He now joins the list of other Illinois governors-turned-convicted felons, including Democrats Otto Kerner and Dan Walker and Republican George Ryan.
Current Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said anyone who misleads the public should be held accountable. Quinn underlined the importance of passing stronger ethics legislation.
"That's imperative in Illinois," he said. "Seems to me after two straight governors have been convicted of serious felonies, it's time to turn that page. We have and make sure we trust the people."
Counts Against Blagojevich:
GUILTY _ Counts 1-10: WIRE FRAUD. Nearly all are related to the allegation Blagojevich tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old Senate seat. Each count carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.
NO VERDICT _ Count 11: ATTEMPTED EXTORTION. The alleged attempt to force then-U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel's Hollywood agent brother to hold a fundraiser for Blagojevich in exchange for releasing a school grant. Maximum penalty of 20 years.
GUILTY _ Count 12: ATTEMPTED EXTORTION. Alleged attempt to shake down the CEO of Children's Memorial Hospital for a campaign contribution. Maximum penalty of 20 years.
GUILTY _ Count 13: SOLICITING A BRIBE. Shakedown of Children's Memorial Hospital executive. Maximum penalty of 10 years.
GUILTY _ Count 14: EXTORTION CONSPIRACY. Blagojevich allegedly conspiring with an aide to shake down a racetrack executive for a campaign contribution. Maximum penalty of 20 years.
GUILTY _ Count 15: BRIBERY CONSPIRACY. Related to the alleged shakedown of the racetrack executive. Maximum five-year sentence.
NO VERDICT _ Count 16: ATTEMPTED EXTORTION. An attempt to shake a road-building executive down for a contribution. Maximum penalty of 20 years.
NOT GUILTY _ Count 17: SOLICITING A BRIBE. Related to alleged road-builder shakedown. Maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
GUILTY _ Count 18: EXTORTION CONSPIRACY. Related to the Senate seat. Maximum penalty of 20 years.
GUILTY _ Count 19: ATTEMPTED EXTORTION. Related to the Senate seat. Maximum penalty of 20 years.
GUILTY _ Count 20: BRIBERY CONSPIRACY. Related to the Senate seat. Maximum of 5 years.
(AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)