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Inside the Rod Blagojevich Trial

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CHICAGO -- As I entered the 25th-floor courtroom in the Dirksen Federal Building Tuesday, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois walked over to say hello during a break in his corruption trial before U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel.

Blagojevich was the most cheerful defendant I have ever chatted with. It had been awhile since I had last seen him.

I started covering Blagojevich when he was a state representative in 1992. He's a runner and he knew I jogged, so he asked me and a local TV reporter, a marathoner, about how our running was going. I asked him if he was keeping up with his routine, what with the trial and all, and he told me the night before he ran 6.5 miles in 56 minutes, ticking off his route though various North Side Chicago parks, focusing on one in particular.

"Horner Park," Blagojevich said, referring to the place not far from his home. It's named for former Gov. Henry Horner, who served between 1933 and 1940 and whose legacy included Illinois' first sales tax. "He raised taxes during the Depression and he gets a park!" Blagojevich told me, with a "can ya believe that" look.

Rod BlagojevichWhat's left unsaid is that there will be no park or civic monument for Blagojevich. Impeached and ousted from office in January 2009, he faces significant prison time if he is convicted, and perhaps a talk show career if acquitted.

At that point, his wife, Patti, walked up and asked, "What are you talking about?"

She is worried that the garrulous Blagojevich -- a post-impeachment veteran of a slew of radio and television talk shows and a former contestant on "The Apprentice" -- is shooting his mouth off, saying something that will get him in more trouble than he is already in. He assures her we are just talking about running.

Patti Blagojevich is a figure in the case against her husband, though she was not indicted. The jurors heard testimony from prosecution witnesses that suggested she was paid by, though she did no actual work for, a Blagojevich fundraiser, Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who did business with the state.

Rezko is now a convicted political fixer serving time in prison. (That's the same Rezko whose wife was part of a land deal with Barack Obama when he was an Illinois senator. Rezko's wife bought an empty lot adjacent to the house Obama purchased, meeting a condition of the seller, who insisted both parcels be sold together. Obama later called that move "boneheaded.")

When the testimony is not about her, Patti Blagojevich is allowed in the courtroom. On Tuesday afternoon, she sat in the front row next to her sister, Illinois State Rep. Deborah Mell (D-Chicago), who holds the seat Blagojevich once had. Mell made a splash last April when she announced to the Chicago press that she was going to marry her partner in 2011 in Iowa, a state where gay marriage is legal.

While Rod and Patti mingled during the break, Robert Blagojevich, the former governor's brother and co-defendant, sat stoically with his defense team at their table. He is the only member of the Blagojevich political and governmental inner circle the prosecutors could not flip.

Secret Wiretaps and Hurt Feelings

Before Tuesday, the last time Blagojevich and I talked was Dec. 2, 2008, exactly a week before he was arrested on wide-ranging criminal charges, the most sensational being that he allegedly tried to sell the Illinois Senate seat Barack Obama was giving up to become president. I interviewed Blagojevich that day for the Chicago Sun-Times in what I touted as an "exclusive" and the "most detailed" conversation to date on his thinking about who he was going to appoint to fill the seat. In hindsight gained from the trial testimony and wiretap transcripts, I can only say, can I get a do-over? If I only knew.

During that 2008 phone interview, I asked Blagojevich if he wanted an African-American to replace Obama, since Obama was the only African-American in the Senate at the time. Blagojevich told me, "It would be very good if all the factors converged and if an African-American candidate would fit that bill ... and that certainly would be the best of all worlds, and that's possible, but that by itself is not the only consideration."

Allegations of other less savory considerations are what constitute the selling of the Senate seat charge against Blagojevich. He has pleaded not guilty to all 24 counts in his indictment. Much of the testimony in the trial -- Thursday marked Day 21, with the prosecution still presenting witnesses -- has to do with Blagojevich allegedly plotting about what he could get for himself or Patti in return for the appointment.

Secret wiretaps of phone conversations are being played for the jurors. While the defense still has to put on its case, the wiretaps suggest Blagojevich's schemes were out of touch with political reality. He actually thought at one point he could parlay the Senate seat to an appointment as Obama's Health and Human Services secretary or a big-salary job at a foundation, according to the wiretaps.

Blagojevich, the expletive-filled wiretaps show, was jealous of Obama's rise, bitter about being "stuck" as a governor, and hurt and angry that the Obama team shunned him. For almost the entire time Obama was running for president, Blagojevich was radioactive because everyone knew -- there were stories in the papers -- that Blagojevich was being investigated by the feds. The home state governor had no role in the campaign.

Testimony at the trial on Thursday showed how the Obama team tried to keep Blagojevich from the Grant Park rally celebrating Obama's victory on Election Day in 2008 -- but Blagojevich came anyway.

Campaign communications chief Anita Dunn had received an e-mail that Blagojevich was likely to attend. She sent an e-mail to William Knapp, Blagojevich's media consultant, saying "wtf." Dunn and Knapp were partners at their firm, Squier Knapp Dunn Communications, (Dunn took a leave for the campaign), and Knapp sent an e-mail to Deputy Gov. Bob Greenlee, "U are killing me with my partner." Dunn went on to become, for a time, the Obama White House communications director.

The White House and the Trial

There is an expanding White House angle to the Blagojevich trial.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett have been subpoenaed by the defense to testify, as have Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Illinois Democratic Senate nominee Alexi Giannoulias.

Emanuel, who won the House seat Blagojevich gave up when he ran for governor, was at various points portrayed in testimony as an emissary for the Obama team.

Earlier testimony in the trial revealed that Jarrett was interested in the Senate seat for a time.

Jurors and the public learned for the first time that, on election eve, Obama phoned labor leader Tom Balanoff, the SEIU's top Illinois official who got to know Obama back when he was a community organizer. "I want to talk to you with regard to the Senate seat," Balanoff testified that Obama had told him. He went on to tell Balanoff he had two criteria, someone who could hold the seat in 2010 and who would be good for Illinois. He told Balanoff he would not publicly support Jarrett or anyone else.

"I would much prefer she (remain in the White House) but she does want to be senator and she does meet those two criteria," Balanoff said Obama had told him. "I said: 'Thank you, I'm going to reach out to Governor Blagojevich." Balanoff met with Blogojevich on Nov. 6, 2008, to recommend Jarrett for Obama's seat. But Jarrett was soon out of the Senate picture; her job as senior adviser was announced Nov. 14, 2008.

Blagojevich was arrested on Dec. 9, 2008, and went on to appoint Roland Burris to the seat.

After Blagojevich's arrest, the Obama transition team commissioned an internal inquiry about any contacts between transition staffers and Obama and the governor and his office. The report issued on Dec. 23, 2008, did not mention that Obama had called Balanoff. The Obama team could argue a technicality -- Obama's election eve call was before he was elected -- and the report was limited to "transition staff" and the governor, not go-betweens like Balanoff.

In an unexpected twist, the subject of Blagojevich's wardrobe also emerged in testimony. The prosecution introduced evidence that Blagojevich's family clothing bills topped $400,000 during his six years as governor, including $4,000 suits.

In the courtroom on Tuesday as we talked, Blagojevich alluded to the spending-spree testimony when he brought up running shoes. He said he wore Nike's LunaGlide and wisecracked something about how the stories did not detail all the running shoes he has. He was like "Ponce de Leon," looking for the perfect shoe, he said.

At that point, one of his lawyers needed him and Blagojevich returned to the defense table. A few moments later, Zagel and the jurors returned to the courtroom and Zagel's clerk hollered, "All rise."

Blagojevich darted over to me -- I was in the second row on the prosecution side -- and tapped my hand. "Be sure to come back when I testify."

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The best and most accessible article I have seen about the Blagojevich situation.
Brava Lynn!

July 19 2010 at 11:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Blago is very cheerful because he knows that the people that he could bring down with him will use their influence to keep his misdeeds under wraps.

July 13 2010 at 1:11 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Not crazy about Blago, but, what really stands out in all of this is the hot shot federal lawyers who over a year ago were grandstanding in front of the cameras, calling press conference after press conference then asked for a year to put a case together, got the time they say they needed and seem to not have anything substantial enough to make this stick. Just think if it was someone without the means to defend themselves. These lawyer hacks would be more than willing to prosecute an innocent person.

July 12 2010 at 1:20 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

FOX NEWS has been desperately trying to link the Obama administration with some malfeasance in the Blago affair. Thus far Obama and co. seem to have maintained their integrity saying they could offer Blago nothing but thanks in return for any senate appointment. FOX NEWS is hugely disappointed.

July 12 2010 at 12:30 PM Report abuse -13 rate up rate down Reply

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