Trial Brings Blagojevich Back To The Cameras

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Jury selection began this week in the corruption trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is accused, among other charges, of trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Obama. Host Scott Simon talks with NPR's David Schaper in Chicago.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The federal corruption trial of Rob Blagojevich got underway this week. The scene on the sidewalk outside of Chicago's Dirksen Federal Courts Building as the former governor of Illinois arrived for the first day of trial was marked by a good ole Chicago scrum.

Unidentified Man: Any thoughts about how you're feeling, Governor? How are you feeling?

Mr. ROB BLAGOJEVICH (Former Democratic Governor, Illinois): Great, I feel great.

SIMON: Mr. Blagojevich is charged with 24 counts of fraud, racketeering, conspiracy, bribery and extortion, among other charges. Most notable: the accusation that he tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama for personal gain.

I'm joined now to talk about the case. From Chicago is NPR's David Schaper, who's covering the trial. David, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID SCHAPER: Well, thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: You know, most states would call this the trial of the century, but this happens ever few years in Illinois. The governor...

SCHAPER: It seems to.

SIMON: Governor George Ryan was tried and convicted just a few years ago. So, help us understand the atmosphere of the trail.

SCHAPER: Well, you know, it was a bit circus-like, even though, you know, the political corruption trials keep coming one after another here in Chicago. This one rises to a level that we've only seen with Governor Ryan just a few years ago. But still circus-like.

Governor Blagojevich gets out of the car and tries to walk into of the building but is in full campaign mode. He sees a couple of supporters waving signs and cheering him on. And he goes over and chats with them a little bit, shakes some hands, hugs them. Blagojevich really has never seen a camera he didn't like. So he did surprise us by once he got inside - saying almost nothing on his way in - instead left the talking to his wife, Patty Blagojevich. Now, she's been fairly quiet through this whole ordeal, but she's the one who stopped in front of the throng of reporters to thank the people who she says have stood by her husband and her family during what she says has been a terrible time these last 18 months, since FBI agents led then-Governor Rod Blagojevich out of their home in handcuffs.

Ms. PATTY BLAGOJEVICH (Wife of Former Governor): Today is a good day because today is the day that begins a process to correct a terrible injustice that's been done to my husband, our family, and to the people of Illinois. My husband as governor did great things for people and he continued to fight for them always. My husband is an honest man and I know that he's innocent.

SCHAPER: Now, that was pretty much the most exciting moment. They were led upstairs to the 25th floor courtroom for Judge James Zagel and sat down while the slow, quiet methodical process of jury selection continues.

SIMON: So much of what we assume will be offered in evidence, or at least a little of it, I guess, but it's very well known in the public, and we're talking about those wiretap conversations in which Governor Blagojevich allegedly refers to the Senate seat as bleeping golden, says he's not going to give it away for bleeping nothing...

SCHAPER: Right.

SIMON: ...but the case is not necessarily as vivid as those transcripts, is it?

SCHAPER: Well, some people would like to think of it as a slam dunk because, oh, we've got so much on tape. And the federal prosecution has 500 hours of tapes. And they were only taping Governor Blagojevich the last six weeks before his arrest, or maybe seven weeks or so, from basically the end of October of 2008 to the beginning of December.

In those conversations they believe they have a lot of damning evidence about him trying to not just sell the Senate seat but pressuring certain people for campaign contributions. There's the CEO of Children's Hospital in Chicago, who he's allegedly trying to shakedown for a $50,000 campaign contribution and threatening to hold up state funding for that hospital if he doesn't get the money.

But as strong as that evidence will be, the case dates back to before he even took office. And the federal prosecution has been able to convince three of his former chiefs of staff to plead guilty to their charges for taking part in this conspiracy, to use the office to fund their campaigns illegally and to enrich themselves. And those three are going to provide a lot of evidence in the beginning of the trial as they try to painstakingly kind of lay out this narrative of what went on through the entire Blagojevich administration, not just those final few months.

SIMON: NPR's David Schaper in Chicago. Thanks so much.

SCHAPER: Thanks for having me, Scott.

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