Blagojevich Retrial Nears Conclusion

Guest

Rick Pearson, political correspondent, The Chicago Tribune

A jury convicted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2010 on one count of lying to the FBI, but deadlocked on the other charges. The retrial on bribery and corruption charges is expected to go the jury Thursday, after testimony from Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.), Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, and Blagojevich himself.

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NEAL CONAN, host: The bribery and corruption case against former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is expected to go to the jury later today. Charges include the allegation that he tried to sell President Barack Obama's Senate seat. Last year, a jury convicted the flamboyant former governor on one count of lying to the FBI, but could not decide on the other charges. In the retrial, Blagojevich himself took the stand, as did Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., and former White House Chief of Staff and now Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel.

Rick Pearson of the Chicago Tribune is following the trial and joins us from member station WBEZ. And, Rick, nice to have you back with us.

RICK PEARSON: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: Last time around, jurors said they were confused that the prosecution had not laid out a clear case. Did they change their tactics this time?

PEARSON: This has been very much a streamlined prosecution case. Some of the charges from the first trial were dumped. The prosecution, in its closing statements, has made every effort to try to convey a roadmap to jurors on what secret recordings were obtained, how they link to the various charges, even using basically even like a PowerPoint demonstration as jurors were copiously taking down notes.

CONAN: And I gather they were able to present each juror with a copy of the transcripts of the wiretaps.

PEARSON: They got a copy of the transcripts. The U.S. attorney - assistant U.S. attorney Carrie Hamilton said it's all in here. Everything is in here. And even these binders with the transcripts were kind of tagged and coded so that jurors could follow which transcripts go with which charge that's facing the former governor.

CONAN: Oh, I see. So if you wanted to look at count six, you could look and there would be a tab and you just open up, and there's the highlighted tape.

PEARSON: Very much so. I mean, really, the big complaint from jurors last time was the fact that it was a much more complicated, convoluted case. You know, some of the charges last time around were conspiracy RICO charges. Those aren't in there anymore. But the basic elements of the case still remain the same, and, of course, the highlight charge being that Blagojevich tried to sell that U.S. Senate seat, that belonged to President Obama, for personal and political gain.

CONAN: One of the problems the prosecution has had is that he may have tried to sell it, but he didn't get anything.

PEARSON: Right. And the - that's really the substance of the defense closing statements today, that Blagojevich didn't get a dime. You heard a man who talks a lot. In fact, in this trial, he repeatedly talked over his own lawyers, objecting to prosecution questions on cross examination. Aaron Goldstein, his defense attorney, is saying, that's just an example of how this guy likes to talk and think out loud. But to say that words amount to a crime, that's not the case here.

And, of course, that's been the job of prosecutors to say that in trying to structure events, you don't need to have an acceptance of money. You don't need to have these games kind of play off the way that Blagojevich talks to. It's the mere conversation and trying to arrange these things is a crime. You don't - what they're saying is, basically, you can still be charged with bribery even if no money gets paid.

CONAN: They used the example, as I understand it, of a traffic cop. If he solicits a bribe, that's the crime. You don't have to pay him the 50 bucks to see it walk away.

PEARSON: Right. And the defense attorney is even arguing that that's a hypothetical. That's nowhere near reality because not - it's not the job of a police officer to ask for money, but it's the job of a campaigning politician to try to raise campaign funds.

CONAN: And that's another central point of the defense. We are not talking about corruption. We're talking about politics, which is often not pretty. But this is politics as usual.

PEARSON: Well, and that's their argument, that this is politics as usual. And, of course, Illinois, up until recently, was one of the few states in the country that had no limits on the amount of money that a politician could receive from a donor, a contributor or a special interest.

One of the points that the prosecution has made repeatedly is that with a new law approaching that limited the amount of money that people who did state business could contribute, that that put added pressure on Blagojevich to try to amass huge amounts of campaign money and the allegation that he did not take certain action on state legislation until contributions came in before a January 1 deadline.

CONAN: And through all of this, one of the big differences - in the first trial, Rod Blagojevich had famously said before the first trial: I am going to get up on the stand. I'm going to explain - well, it turned out the tactic his lawyers decided was better was that he not testify. And it seemed to have some justification as they got a hung jury on almost - on all but one count. But nevertheless, this time around, they decided differently. And do we know why?

PEARSON: I think it was because of the fact that they had streamlined the case so much. I think - and indeed, part of what the defense is trying to do in its closing is say that this is still a very, very complicated, if not convoluted case, and that Blagojevich took the stand because they felt he could adequately address each point that was raised.

Now, I have to tell you, when they put him on the stand, you know, his first day in the defense, he literally spent hour upon hour reciting his personal biography. And I think it was somewhere in the fourth hour of his defense questioning that he got to the year 1974.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: As I understand, it also took care to mention every possible good that he had ever done for the people of the city of Chicago.

PEARSON: Yeah, and that's one of the things that he has repeatedly tried to do, even though he's been admonished by the judge, is to point out that he was a great supporter of expanded health care, that on a bill to try to help fund Chicago's mass transit, that he inserted a provision that required that senior citizens get free rides on mass transit. And those are things that he frequently slips in. But frankly, that's one of the reasons. It's those kinds of things that he did that have put Illinois kind of in the bottom of the heap as far as having a huge state budget deficit.

CONAN: There were a couple of other interesting defense witnesses, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., among those who, allegedly, the governor thought might provide him with some cash in return for a senatorial office.

PEARSON: Right. One of the prosecution charges here is that supporters of Congressman Jackson offered or dangled the prospect of a million-and-a-half dollars in campaign funds to Blagojevich if they named Jackson to the Senate seat. Jackson was called to testify about that. He said that he had no knowledge that his supporters were doing this. But in some testimony that probably didn't help Blagojevich at all, he testified that Blagojevich and Jackson did not have a great relationship, partly because Jackson never gave Blagojevich a $25,000 campaign contribution.

Jackson made it sound like if he had given that $25,000 contribution, Blagojevich would have turned around and named Jackson's wife Sandy, an alderman here in Chicago, named her as the state's lottery director. So that only conjured up more of this kind of a pay-for-play style of politics, only in a different direction.

CONAN: And another witness for the defense, the former member of Congress, the former White House chief of staff, now mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel. And this was about the allegation of the interest in - the White House's interest in having Valerie Jarrett named the senator from the state of Illinois, and what they were willing to do in return.

PEARSON: Right. And, of course, we've all heard the great references to the tapes that Blagojevich viewed this opportunity to pick a senator is something that was expletive golden and was not something he was just going to throw away, that he was going to get something in return out of it, and was very dismayed when the White House response was, basically, you get appreciation and gratitude and that's all.

Emanuel wasn't on the stand very long, very brief. Emanuel is also one of the charges - involved in one of the charges here, where there was a state grant for a school that had been - was a grant that Emanuel pushed for a school in his then congressional district that Blagojevich is alleged to have held up approval of until Emanuel's Hollywood agent brother could have a fundraiser and raise a lot of money for Blagojevich.

CONAN: Did either the congressman, Jesse Jackson, Jr., or the now-mayor, do they have anything to worry about, based on what they talked about on the stand?

PEARSON: I don't think so. I mean, there was one piece of trial transcript, something new in these conversations, these secretly recorded conversations from Blagojevich's campaign headquarters in which Emanuel, when he agreed to become White House chief of staff, he asked Blagojevich if he could basically appoint a placeholder to his northwest side Chicago congressional seat, with the prospect that if he ever left the White House as chief of staff, he could come back and run for that congressional seat.

There had been some talk about Emanuel wanting to see about a comeback to the House after serving in the White House. But under the provisions of state law and in most states, you have to have a special election to fill House seats, unlike Senate seats.

CONAN: And then, there was the other issue, that is if you go on and testify in your own defense, you open yourself to cross-examination, and the prosecution asked a - well, it sounds like a damaging first question.

PEARSON: Well, you know, this is something that the U.S. prosecutors have been waiting two years for. And so, when Reid Schar, the lead prosecutor in the case, asked Blagojevich, is it true, sir, you're a convicted liar? There was a flurry of objections and stumbling before Blagojevich answered, yes. That's certainly a great way to open the cross-examination.

And through the first couple of hours, it was a very intense kind of parading of verbal fisticuffs going on. But in the subsequent days - and Blagojevich was on the stand for a total of seven days - it got down to some pretty basics with the defense - with the prosecution now arguing that the stories that he's explaining himself away with don't comport to reality.

CONAN: A whopper is one of the conclusions.

PEARSON: Yeah, very much so. And really kind of pointing out using a timeline, a projected timeline, to explain how some of the explanations Blagojevich says that raising campaign money in exchange for doing certain - signing certain bills that help a certain industry. They actually showed the timeline that these conversations were not dealing with state budget matters or anything unrelated, that the timeline fits as someone looking at the clock running on how can he raise money before new campaign limits go into effect.

CONAN: We're talking Rick Pearson, political correspondent for The Chicago Tribune, who's been covering - well, covered both trials of Rod Blagojevich. The second one, has it gone to the jury yet?

PEARSON: It actually is questionable if it will get to the jury today, because the defense really got about an hour in before they broke for lunch. They are allotted up to four hours on the defense. Then there will be rebuttal by the prosecution. Then there's the reading of jury instructions. I mean, it's possible this could all wrap today, but it looks more definitive that the jury will truly get the case tomorrow.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And you were talking earlier about the streamlining of the case. In the first trial, there was a co-defendant, Rod Blagojevich's brother.

PEARSON: Right. His brother Robert, who basically served as the kind of chief fund-raiser, the chief activist to go raise funds - and there's no reason after the federal government saw that that basically kind of confused the case, that they - the jurors viewed Rob Blagojevich as a very sympathetic figure, as perhaps a more believable figure. And the U.S. prosecutors decided not to retry him.

CONAN: So he is off the hook, or did he get convicted on any counts in the first trial?

PEARSON: No, he's off the hook, but - and he did not get convicted. But certainly, he is still part of the trial, inasmuch as Blagojevich asked his brother to kind of go be the heavy and allegedly try to shake down some of these major special interests for campaign funds, even with the admonishment. And here's part of the timeline situation: Blagojevich becomes very much aware that the Feds are - have an extreme interest in him and cautions, you know, Robert to try to make sure that - assume everybody that you're talking to is on tape and don't try to connect too many dots between fundraising and official actions as governor.

CONAN: And let us not forget that the former governor was impeached by the Illinois legislature, and he's not eligible ever to run for political office again, I don't think, in the state of Illinois.

PEARSON: Not in the state of Illinois, although he could run for federal office...

CONAN: He could...

PEARSON: ...and he could run for Congress, for his old congressional seat, the one that Emanuel took over from. So - but he is disqualified from holding any state office in Illinois.

CONAN: He still faces sentencing on the one conviction that was garnered by the prosecution in the first trial?

PEARSON: Right. And that was the - one conviction was for - to lying to federal agents. And, of course, one of these issues that came up was on that conviction, Blagojevich told reporters after that conviction that he thought that that was trumped up, that he didn't have the opportunity to have a court stenographer or recording devices to...

CONAN: Document that.

PEARSON: ...prove that interview with federal agents. Prosecution countered with the fact that one of the agents that was there for that questioning actually brought recording equipment with him, but Blagojevich's attorney at the time turned down a request to record that conversation.

CONAN: After all of this effort, though, two trials, there's a lot at stake for the federal prosecutors here.

PEARSON: Oh, absolutely. And, frankly, there's a lot of conversation, you know, here in Chicago, that after the almost circus of a trial of last time and the circus that Rod Blagojevich and his publicity machine had become, you know, is it worth the time? Is it worth the effort? Is it worth the money to retry this guy? He's not governor anymore. That's been taken away from him. You know, what's the real value here? But certainly, for U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, this is a major case that the fact that jury was unable to convict on, I think, it was 23 out of the 24 counts last time, was a major blow to a nationally recognized prosecutor.

And frankly, there still is, I think, a fundamental belief here that when you're looking at how Illinois has been permeated with corruption in government, you have its - Blagojevich's predecessor is still serving a federal term in Terre Haute for corruption while in office. You've got, you know, Blagojevich on trial now, and certainly already convicted on the one count of lying to federal agents. You know, it says a lot about, you know, where does Illinois turn to next, and where does Chicago turn, as well.

CONAN: Rick Pearson, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

PEARSON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Rick Pearson, political reporter for the Chicago Tribune, joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Tomorrow, Ira Flatow will be here with TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, with a look at the frequency of disaster, plus our outdated electrical grid. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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