Blagojevich Will Not Testify In Corruption Case

Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor turned radio host turned reality TV personality, is on trial for trying to cash in on President Obama's former Senate seat. Chicago Tribune political correspondent Rick Pearson shares highlights from the trial.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

An expletive-laced drama has unfolded in the federal courthouse in Chicago over the past couple of weeks. Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois-turned radio host-turned reality TV personality, is on trial on charges that include attempts to sell President Obama's former Senate seat.

The prosecution rested its case last week after airing hours of, well colorful - FBI wiretaps. They did not cast the defendant in an especially flattering light. Today, Blagojevich would get the chance he's demanded since impeachment: To set the record straight.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Former Democratic Governor, Illinois): You know, I can't wait to begin to tell my side of the story, and to address you guys, and most importantly, the people of Illinois. That's who I'm dying to talk to. Hang loose. Hang in there. I can't wait to talk to you.

CONAN: And the big news from Chicago today: For once, Blagojevich is not talking. If you have questions about the trial and its ramifications for the November election in Illinois, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And here to catch us up on all the courtroom drama, is Chicago Tribune political correspondent Rick Pearson. He joins us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. RICK PEARSON (Political Correspondent, Chicago Tribune): Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And everybody thought, all along, that Governor Blagojevich would be testifying on his own behalf.

Mr. PEARSON: Well, if you remember, he basically went to every rooftop that had - and mountaintop - that had a TV camera to proclaim his innocence. And how he couldn't wait to specifically address these hours and hours and hours of secretly conducted wiretaps of his campaign phone and his personal phone, which basically was the thrust of the federal prosecution's case.

CONAN: As of Monday, the former governor went out of his way - he approached spectators outside the courtroom and said loudly, show of hands, anyone here planning on testifying? Then he thrusts his one hand high in the air.

Mr. PEARSON: Well, you know, this is - even today, after the prosecution rested, Blagojevich was in the courtroom signing autographs until the federal marshals told him he couldn't do that. I mean, it's one big campaign season for this guy.

CONAN: And the jury knows that he planned to testify, because in the opening statement, his lawyer said, I'm telling you now, he's going to testify. He's not going to let some chubby, four-eyed lawyer do his talking for him.

Mr. PEARSON: Well - and I think that's why this is a very interesting strategy that they're using, because of the fact, you know, not only was the jury told that specifically, but they were also told - I mean, they've seen the TV shows that he went on, from coast to coast, that he wanted to get on the stand. He wanted to tell his story and play every tape. And, in fact, now, because of his refusal to testify, his choice not to testify, none of the tapes that could be considered mitigating can be entered into evidence.

CONAN: And it was interesting, apparently, the - his attorneys approached the judge yesterday and said they were planning not to call any witnesses. And the judge said, why don't you go sleep on this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEARSON: Well - and really what was interesting is the fact that the chief legal counsel for Blagojevich's defense is a father-and-son team - Sam Adam Sr., Sam Adam Jr. And they were actually divided over whether Blagojevich should testify. The - Sam Adam Sr. was the one who said that Blagojevich shouldn't testify.

Sam Adam Jr., who's very demonstrative in the courtroom and really a fixture in a lot of local trials in Chicago, he was the one that helped encouraged Blagojevich, really, to stay public and wanted him to testify. And even today, he said, he's prepared to testify. It just came down to the fact that the defense believes that the federal government didn't prove its case.

CONAN: The defense may also have believed - and I don't mean to put words in their mouths - but it might be a tough go for the former governor on the witness stand. He said a lot of things in those tapes which would make a - it a difficult interrogation when the federal prosecutors got their chance to cross-examine. And we should point out: it is unusual - rare, even - for defendants to testify on their own behalf, for exactly that reason.

Mr. PEARSON: That's exactly right. And there was the great assumption that if Blagojevich should testify, this could have gone, you know, more than a week through both direct and cross-examination. But there's also a factor here, too, of strategy. The federal government was very quick in presenting their case.

And in fact, basically what occurred was that a convicted influence peddler named Tony Rezko and a convicted embezzler named Stuart Levine, were basically - apparently held in reserve by the federal prosecutors, and they were planning to use those men to rebut any kind of proclamation from Blagojevich from the witness stand, that, no, this was a clean administration, that no crimes occurred.

Now, you've taken those two people off the table and questions are kind of arising as to whether, you know, the defense basically called the federal governments bluff. And did the federal government complete the whole case that they had on the table?

CONAN: Ken?

KEN: Rick, two things. First of all, if you remember Blagojevich during his impeachment and trial in the Illinois State Senate, I mean, he was kind of like rambling and kind of nutty during that old thing. So, perhaps maybe the defense said, the last thing we want is a repeat performance of that.

Mr. PEARSON: Well, you know, certainly - and this holds true from even during his tenure as governor is when Blagojevich stays on his talking points, his very solid. But if you get him off the cue cards, that's kind of the guy that you saw. But also remember, too, during his impeachment trial, Blagojevich was not going to testify in that. And on the final day, he decided to come to Springfield and testify without the prospect of facing examination by the prosecution there in the impeachment trial - and then basically rushed home from Springfield to Chicago before he was impeached and he lost the right to use the state airplane.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And of course, he did not sway many of those jurors in Springfield.

Mr. PEARSON: Swayed no jurors. And in fact, is barred, permanently, from seeking public office in Illinois.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Rick Pearson, political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. Phil(ph) calling us from Hebron, Illinois.

PHIL (Caller): Yes, sir. I'm calling from the state where Lincoln spins in his grave daily. I want to know if Rick - I read his paper daily - and I want to know if he had heard the comment that Mike Monaco, the defense attorney out of Chicago, made, that the governor's brother was basically run through a meat grinder and didn't kind of (technical difficulties) well, and his defense attorneys didn't feel it'd be advantageous for him to be put in the same meat grinder, if this is the only choice they had.

CONAN: We should point out, the governor's brother as a codefendant in the trial, but go ahead.

Mr. PEARSON: Right, and the governor's brother, Robert Blagojevich. And indeed the governor - the former governor's defense team, has said that they believed that the former governor's brother did a pretty good job of defending the family name there. And that there, you know, certainly where concerns about having them - having Rod Blagojevich testify and where he might spin off to.

CONAN: Phil, thanks very much. Let's go to a tape. This is Blagojevich speaking at a news conference today, explaining why he felt it was not necessary to take the stand.

(Soundbite of news conference)

Mr. ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Former Governor, Illinois): Sam Adam Sr.'s most compelling argument, and ultimately the one that swayed me, was that the government, in their case, proved my innocence. They proved I did nothing illegal, and that there was nothing further for us to add. And that he believed it was prudent to rest the case, and when you rest the case, that means you can't take the stand and testify.

CONAN: And that's former Governor Blagojevich, talking today. Let me add this email from James(ph) in Tucson. I've heard it's generally good news for the defense, if it declines to present a case, doesn't that suggest the prosecution case isn't nearly as strong as they suggested it was. Is that correct?

Mr. PEARSON: Well, as I said, the prosecution did leave some things on the table here, by not bringing up the fact that you had these two convicted witnesses that were prepared to testify. And again, you know, this was a trial that everybody basically believed was going to last four or five months. And here we are, about seven weeks, and we're facing the prospect of closing the arguments on Monday. There's been a lot of questions about, did the federal government really go too quickly here.

CONAN: Ken?

KEN: Well, Rick, following up on that. I mean, obviously the Democrats were scared to death of the long-protracted trial because they have a hotly contested Senate and gubernatorial race. I suspect that a quick trial is good news for the Democratic Party.

Mr. PEARSON: Ken, that was the first thing I thought of when I heard about this, because, you know, as I said, when you talk about a month-long trial, that puts it smack-dab in the middle of, you know, the Labor Day, post-Labor Day start of the traditional campaign season. And already you've had Republicans who have basically been in political exile in Illinois since the conviction of the previous governor, George Ryan, a Republican. Republicans now seeing Blagojevich as kind of their hope to be able to get that Senate seat back, get the governors office back, one that Blagojevich took after 26 years of Republican governors.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Peter(ph) in Iowa City. Is it possible that Blago's lawyers are not really gunning for an acquittal, but are instead trying to ride out an appeal based on the Supreme Court's recent ruling, restricting the honest services clause used in public interest prosecutions? And - Rick, I don't know if you've been following that, but as I recall, there was some speculations immediately afterwards, that no, the governor of Illinois could not expect to hold a lot of benefit from that Supreme Court ruling.

Mr. PEARSON: No, indeed the - actually Blagojevich's defense, at one time, tried to ask for a delay in the trial until the Supreme Court ruled on the honest services aspects of it. And the Federal prosecutors re-indicted Blagojevich to specifically avoid any kind of counts based on honest services. The judge in the case was asked about this by the defense attorneys, and the judge said honest services are not part of this case.

CONAN: Let's go next to Danny(ph), Danny with us from Lexington, Kentucky.

DANNY (Caller): Hello. Glad to speak to you. You know, I'm kind of wondering if the state of Illinois holds the record, if Blagojevich goes to prison for, you know, governors that have been locked up by the federal government?

CONAN: Ken, is there a gubernatorial suite at Joliet?

Mr. PEARSON: Yeah, Danny, I think...

DANNY: Yeah, that makes you get a discount or something at a camp outside of Marion. You got Otto Kerner, I think, was up here in Lexington, Kentucky, I think, during his final years.

RUDIN: Danny, I suspect that people in Louisiana will - may criticize your analysis on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DANNY: Well, you know, unless we have a saying in Kentucky, about politics and it's, thanks God - thank God for Louisiana. And I think you could probably ad Illinois to that.

CONAN: Danny, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Political Junkie Ken Rudin. Also with us, is Rick Pearson, political correspondent of The Chicago Tribune. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And Rick, as you look back on the prosecution's cases, you said they may have left some elements on the table they were hoping to come back with later. But how strong do you think their case is?

Mr. PEARSON: Well, I mean, these tapes are pretty devastating. And, you know, while a lot of the attention of the Blagojevich trials focused on the allegation that he tried to sell the former Senate seat of Barack Obama for personal profit and political profit, there are still a number of - in these 24 counts, there's a number of elements here, regarding the fact that Blagojevich was allegedly trying to shake down the head of a children's hospital in exchange for state funding; to try to shake down Rahm Emanuel's brother to hold a fundraiser in exchange for school funding; and then-Congressman Emanuel's congressional district, to shake down road contractors and basically to see what - how much money they'd give to determine what size of road programs should be done for the Illinois Toll Highway Authority.

CONAN: There was also a race track that was trying to get back...

Mr. PEARSON: Correct.

CONAN: ...in business, and they were being shaken down as well, allegedly.

Mr. PEARSON: In exchange for legislation that would be beneficial to help the race - horseracing industry in Illinois.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jeff(ph), Jeff with us from Superior in Wisconsin.

JEFF (Caller): Yes, good afternoon, gentlemen. I voted for Rod Blagojevich when I lived in Chicago, and I think he has done a lot for the people in Illinois. I wish I could vote for him again, actually. I think we need people that can get results. And I think he's going to be exonerated. I think he'll be found not guilty of these crimes. And it's a new day in Illinois politics, so I just think it's going to be a historic moment.

CONAN: Have you followed the case closely, Jeff?

JEFF: Oh, yeah. It's like an episode in "Boston Legal." I can't wait - I would love to see Denny Crane do the closing argument. I mean, it's great for politics in America. It's dramatic. It's exceptional. We've seen them on Donald Trump's program. I mean, but I think when it all plays out, I think it's going to be a lesson for all of us that, you know, in order to get results in our government, sometimes, you go to play the political game.

CONAN: Well...

Mr. PEARSON: Unfortunately, some of those results were the fact that the state of Illinois is now - it's tottering on bankruptcy, $13 billion state deficit, over $5 billion in unpaid bills, the least funded public pension system in the United States. And these were all a result of decisions that basically started under Rod Blagojevich.

JEFF: Well, there was a lot of black people, I know, that really appreciate the things he did; and a lot of senior citizens who don't have to pay for public transportation. And they...

Mr. PEARSON: And in fact, there's a great tape that was on election night that was recorded by the federal government, filled with expletives, where Blagojevich is lamenting how Barack Obama has now passed him up as a supreme politician from Illinois and complains that he gave her grandmother a free bus ride, I gave your baby health care. Thirteen percent - which was his job approval rating at the time - and basically told voters to perform an act on themselves.

CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

What would happen in the event of an acquittal? If the governor, if the ex-governor is found not guilty, how does his status change?

Mr. PEARSON: Well, I don't think it changes at all. I mean, the fact is he has been impeached. It was a unanimous vote of the Illinois State Senate and also a separate vote that barred him from ever seeking public office in Illinois ever again. That doesn't change. There is no appeals process for impeachment. I mean, it's a constitutional standard in the state of Illinois.

I mean, I - certainly, I assume that we'll do something to further enhance his profile for, you know, the various reality shows and his Chicago talk show on radio.

CONAN: Did the prosecution's evidence include some of the governor's former aides, saying, yes, we were told to do this?

Mr. PEARSON: Well, indeed, a lot of the prosecution case was the fact that these were aides that actually became very profitable lobbyists, largely due to the fact of Blagojevich being governor - the insider access that they were allowed. His former chief of staff, I mean, a college room mate, Alonzo "Lon" Monk, was one of those.

John Wyma, who was a former chief of staff when Blagojevich was a congressman, who said he earned a million dollars the first year that Blagojevich became governor. All these people testifying the fact they wanted to continue to maintain that access, and so that they didn't necessarily questioned some of the harebrained schemes that he was proposing.

CONAN: Several of them accepting lesser sentences in return for their testimony.

Mr. PEARSON: Or just getting a grant of immunity to testify. Monk, however, his chief of staff, has a plea agreement.

CONAN: And Rod Blagojevich's brother, how many charges does he face?

Mr. PEARSON: He has not faced as many. As I recall, it was about a handful of charges. And frankly, most observers' kind of view, if there is a weak part of - in the prosecution of what Rob Blagojevich really will face here.

CONAN: Well, Rick Pearson, thank you very much for your time today. We can't wait for the closing arguments on Monday.

Mr. PEARSON: They'll be very interesting. Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: You got to get the federal court to change its mind about providing audio tapes of this stuff.

Rick Pearson is political correspondent for The Chicago Tribune. He joined us today from the studios of member station WBEZ. As always, we thank Political Junkie Ken Rudin, with us every Wednesday, here on TALK OF THE NATION.

And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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