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Wiretaps Ring Out In Blagojevich Courtroom

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Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich's voice is being heard in the Chicago courtroom in which he's on trial for fraud, bribery, extortion, racketeering, conspiracy and general political corruption. This week, the court listened to the government wiretaps of Blagojevich's conversations. Host Scott Simon talks with Carol Marin, political columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, about the progress of the corruption trial.


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

Coming up, memories of a marriage that was for the books.

But first, the voice of Rod Blagojevich from government wiretaps has been heard in the Chicago courtroom in which he's been on trial for the past two weeks. He's accused of fraud, bribery, extortion, racketeering, conspiracy and political corruption generally.

Carol Marin joins us, the eminent political reporter for WMAQ-TV, Chicago Sun-Times columnist, and Chicago Public Television. Carol, thanks for being with us.

Ms. CAROL MARIN (Reporter): Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Tell us a little bit about what you've been in a position to hear there in that courtroom, particularly as these audiotapes, which became so famous last year, have been played finally.

Ms. MARIN: This week largely focused on Rod Blagojevich beginning the day after Barack Obama wins the presidency, stewing and thinking and planning about how he's going to take Barack Obama's Senate seat, which he alone has the power to appoint a replacement for, and what he can get for it.

SIMON: Now, we read some of the boldface headlines about this. He thought he could be ambassador to India. He mused maybe he could be United Nations ambassador. Maybe he could get a cabinet post, but and then maybe he thought George Soros or someone might fund a foundation that he could run that someone would recommend to President Obama be established.

Ms. MARIN: He's tormented about the fact it's no longer fun being governor. He's got big money problems. He has $200,000 in credit debt, and that does not include his mortgages. He has impeachment maybe breathing down his neck. And so he wants to get out of there. And one of the things he thinks he can do is get out of there by trading this Senate seat. And maybe with Barack Obama's influential friends he might be able to be the head of what's called a 501(c)(4). It's a not-for-profit but with the ability to do some political kinds of things.

SIMON: We should say allegedly at some point here, right?

Ms. MARIN: No, you hear him thinking about them. What's allegedly - the defense would argue is whether any of this is criminal. SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, which has been a big funder to Blagojevich, is also a big funder to Obama and Tom Balanoff, who heads the union here in Illinois, was seen sort of as the honest broker who went to Blagojevich and who clearly, though - the sort of revelation here is the White House was much more involved than we've been led to believe and Balanoff's had two conversations with Barack Obama.

SIMON: Yeah, Barack Obama called him personally, right?

Ms. MARIN: Yes.

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. MARIN: And tries to finesse Valerie Jarrett, Barack Obama's first pick among picks, for this U.S. Senate seat, how they can persuade Blagojevich to put her in that slot. But he's not so sure unless he thinks he can get something big for it.

SIMON: Now, it does raise the question as to how much of this is just makes you cringe, and how much of it might wind up violating the law.

Ms. MARIN: To some degree, if we were all audiotaped, we'd all be in a position of slinking down in our chair and covering our faces. Rod Blagojevich, however, is on tape. And the real question is whether something was traded. Going back to Mr. Balanoff for a second, Scott, he was asked on direct examination whether or not there was the understanding that if Valerie Jarrett was put in, that Blagojevich was hoping for a position, say, as secretary of Health and Human Services. He said yes, that was the understanding.

What the defense objected to was, did that get said out loud: I will trade you Valerie Jarrett for the slot at HHS. And of course there was no direct conversation of that nature. And so, in federal court, part of this case is whether it was simply understood. You didn't have to say it as literally as that.

SIMON: You heard your own name come up in court this week, I gather.

Ms. MARIN: Yes. I'm sitting in court. It's Tuesday. He says to his advisor, confidante Doug Scofield, that he was on television the night before. Well, the night before was the election, and in fact, Rod Blagojevich was on my news set at NBC election night and I was talking to him, asking him, Governor, how do you sometimes get up in the morning given all of the federal squads that seem to surround you? They're talking the next day and Doug Scofield says, You know, of all of them, I like her the least.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARIN: To which Rod Blagojevich responds, I hate her, I hate her.

I must say that after that tape was played, I looked over at the governor in the courtroom and he sort of raised his hands in kind of an apologetic shrug. And then later down in the lobby he said, look, I am really sorry. I was frustrated. And you know, I hope they play the tape where I said I have a crush on you. I'm not so sure that tape exists, Scott.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARIN: But the governor did reaffirm that apology just Thursday in the cafeteria of the federal building, where he was also shaking hands and signing autographs.

SIMON: He's still doing that?

Ms. MARIN: He is still hand-to-hand campaigning every opportunity. And in some way you have to wonder, if these people who come and say, you know, Governor, I've got you to thank for my free senior citizen pass on the bus - if there isn't some comfort from these people who he believes are the real people of Illinois who really get who he is.

SIMON: Well, Carol, we'll look forward to talking to you again.

Ms. MARIN: All right, Scott, take care.

SIMON: That's Carol Marin of WMAQ and WTTW-TV and the Chicago Sun-Times.

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