Next Stop On Blagojevich PR Tour: Court

He's been on The View, Late Night with David Letterman, Celebrity Apprentice and a host of other shows — all to profess his innocence. Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois, has conducted his own PR campaign as he fights federal charges of corruption. Jury selection in his trial began Wednesday.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

In the year and a half since his arrest, Rod Blagojevich, the former Democratic governor of Illinois, has lost his job and become both a political pariah and a punchline.

Well, jury selection in his federal corruption trial gets under way tomorrow, and seating a jury might be a challenge because of the former governor's nonstop media blitz.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: This corruption scandal has played out like a melodrama, with Rod Blagojevich portrayed as both hero and villain, from his days as fighter for the little people, as he liked to call himself, to now, a politically toxic former governor who has become a celebrity of sorts.

(Soundbite of TV show "Celebrity Apprentice")

(Soundbite of music)

Former Governor ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Democrat, Illinois): Hi, I'm Rod Blagojevich, and I'm hoping to be the next celebrity apprentice.

CORLEY: No staying silent for this defendant until trial. Since he was indicted on charges of racketeering, attempted extortion, bribery and mail fraud, the former Illinois governor has taken an unusual approach. He's appeared on shows like "Celebrity Apprentice," he's hosted his own radio show and done guest spots on "Late Night with David Letterman."

(Soundbite of TV show "Late Night with David Letterman")

Mr. DAVID LETTERMAN (Television Host): And the more you talked, and the more you repeated your innocence, the more I said to myself, oh, this guy is guilty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: This is the second consecutive corruption trial for an Illinois governor, and for some Blagojevich remains a laughingstock, though he's always been on-message. Here's how he answered Letterman.

(Soundbite of TV show "Late Night with David Letterman")

Former Gov. BLAGOJEVICH: And I can just tell you that it's a very difficult thing that I've gone through, unimaginable, unexpected, unanticipated. And I assert my innocence because it is the truth.

CORLEY: Fifty-three-year-old Rod Blagojevich will stand trial with his brother, Robert, his campaign fundraising chief. They are accused of using the governor's office to try to squeeze people for payoffs and hefty campaign contributions, and of scheming to sell the Senate seat once held by President Obama.

When announcing the indictment, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said Blagojevich had taken the state to a new low. The former governor's attorney, Sam Adam, Jr., says it's no wonder his client took his fight on the road.

Mr. SAM ADAM (Attorney): He had to face so much bad publicity at the beginning, especially with that press conference by Mr. Fitzgerald, that he's just trying to even the playing field. That's all he's trying to do.

Mr. PATRICK COLLINS (Former Prosecutor): I think the defense team does believe that if Rod Blagojevich walks into that courtroom as a celebrity of sorts, that's a good thing for the defense.

CORLEY: Patrick Collins is a former prosecutor who headed the team that sent Blagojevich's predecessor, former Republican Illinois Governor George Ryan, to jail for racketeering and fraud.

Mr. COLLINS: On the flip side, I think the government is probably salivating at the change to cross-examine Mr. Blagojevich on some of the statements he's made publicly. In other words, the cost of him being out there is that if he takes the stand, which he's promised to do, there is fodder for cross-examination in the statements.

CORLEY: The government secretly taped 500 hours of Blagojevich's phone conversations. They say these show him wanting something in return for appointing someone to the Senate seat vacated by President Obama, a seat Blagojevich calls on the once-secret tape - bleeping golden.

(Soundbite of TV show "The View")

Ms. JOY BEHAR (Television Host): Just say I am not a crook, do it.

CORLEY: It's been a tough effort for the former governor to redeem himself on the talk show circuit. On "The View" last year, host Joy Behr ruffled Blagojevich's perfectly coifed and much-parodied hair and encouraged him to do his impersonation of President Nixon.

(Soundbite of TV show "The View")

Former Gov. BLAGOJEVICH: Let me make it perfectly clear, I didn't do anything wrong. I'm not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing...

CORLEY: Now that the trial is about to begin, attorney Sam Adam, Jr. says he's just looking for jurors who aren't biased.

Mr. ADAM: We're not going to get jurors that don't know anything about the case. That's impossible in this case. But we want jurors that haven't made up their mind, even if they voted against him twice.

CORLEY: At the Thompson Center in Chicago, the state building where Blagojevich had his office, off-duty police officer Darryl Edwards says he expects the former governor to get a fair trial despite his media blitz.

Mr. DARRYL EDWARDS (Police Officer): As far as untainted jury pool, it's going to hurt him, but that may be part of his defense strategy.

CORLEY: Nancy Marder, a law professor at Chicago Kent College of Law, whos written about the jury process, says there's another thing to keep in mind.

Ms. NANCY MARDER (Law Professor, Chicago Kent College of Law): I think we have to realize that there's a broad swath of people who will not have been watching the governor on these reality shows.

CORLEY: Earlier today, the federal judge in the case turned down another request to delay the trial from Blagojevich attorneys and told them to get ready to start picking jurors tomorrow.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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