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Rod Blagojevich Convicted for Coverup, Not the Crime

5 years ago
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The one count out of 24 that stuck to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Tuesday was for the coverup -- not the alleged crimes. And the two false statements that got Blagojevich convicted were about activities elected officials manage to do every day without breaking any laws.

After 14 days of deliberations, the jury in his corruption trial deadlocked on 23 counts against Blagojevich -- including the more serious allegations of racketeering, attempted bribery, extortion and the selling of the Senate seat vacated by President Obama. The jury also could not decide on four charges brought against Blagojevich's brother, Robert, who helped him raise political cash.

The two statements that jurors found were lies to federal agents:
- When said he "has tried to maintain a firewall between politics and government."
- When he said he "does not track, or want to know, who contributes to him or how much they are contributing to him."

Rod BlagojevichWe'll never know exactly what Blagojevich said during a March 2005 interview at his lawyer's office -- with two FBI agents and two federal prosecutors -- because it was not recorded. Though he was not arrested until Dec. 9, 2008, Blagojevich back in 2005 was already being investigated for illicit pay-to-play schemes -- trading state jobs, appointments and contracts for campaign contributions.

Federal agents usually don't tape these kinds of interviews. At the trial, an FBI agent testified that he took notes during the three-hour session.

It's a one-way street when it comes to taping. Much of the trial relied on wiretaps -- jurors heard lots of tapes of Blagojevich swearing and plotting as he talked about political figures, donors and people who did or wanted to do business with the State of Illinois.

It seems ironic that Blagojevich got nailed for lying about how he managed political fundraising and governing and whether he tracked his donors when elected officials juggle their political and governmental lives all the time.

The White House -- every presidential administration, no matter the party -- has a political affairs office that's paid for by taxpayers. Almost every elected official has a campaign fund. Now, that doesn't give anyone a license for shake-downs -- trading government contracts and grants for campaign cash or other favors, the stuff Blagojevich is accused of doing.

I happened to be in the courtroom on July 6 -- Day 19 of Blagojevich's trial -- when prosecutors put witnesses on the stand to prove the false-statement allegations. Danielle Stilz, a onetime finance director of Friends of Blagojevich -- a professional fundraiser who worked for Blagojevich's campaign fund -- was one of two fundraisers who testified that Blagojevich indeed did discuss with her people targeted for donations, whose names appeared on "call lists." Jurors got a crash course that day on how professional fundraisers work; I saw them taking lots of notes. Stilz said she left the job because the expectations of how much cash she could raise were "unrealistic."

We finally heard from Blagojevich (who did not testify at his trial) when he spoke to reporters at the Dirksen Federal Building courthouse after the verdict. Basically, he crowed about how the feds could not make their case and how he was "persecuted" and "prosecuted."

"Every charge except for one, they could not prove that I did anything wrong, that I did break any laws; except for one nebulous charge from five years ago; a conversation I had with the FBI where the FBI -- and I agreed to that interview -- refused to allow me to have a court reporter in the room," Blagojevich said. "I want the people of Illinois to know I did not lie to the FBI. I told the truth from the very beginning. This is a persecution."

The Blagojevich case has been a traveling circus since his arrest -- the talk shows, "Celebrity Apprentice" appearances, the Elvis impersonations, his book -- a real reality show that seems headed toward a sequel.

The federal prosecutors said they will seek a retrial. Blagojevich -- now a convicted liar, trapped by his own words to a federal agent (ironically not the testimony of former associates or those scatological wiretaps) -- said he will appeal the verdict.

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