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We've been seeing a lot of Rod Blagojevich, but now he'll finally be appearing in court. The former Democratic governor of Illinois, Blagojevich goes on trial for political corruption, and jury selection begins tomorrow in Chicago. He's charged with scheming to use his office to enrich himself.
Among the allegations is that he tried to sell the appointment of President Obama's former Senate seat to the highest bidder. Blagojevich denies the allegations and has used much of the last 18 months to proclaim his innocence to anyone who will listen. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER: On December 8th, 2008, as a federal corruption investigation into his administration appeared to be intensifying, then Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich, stood before reporters and made a bold challenge:
Former Governor ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Illinois): And by the way, I should say, if anybody wants to tape my conversations, go right ahead; feel free to do it.
SCHAPER: Well, it turns out, federal authorities were already recording Blagojevich's conversations. And the very next morning, FBI agents woke up Blagojevich before dawn and led him out of his home, on Chicago's northwest side, in handcuffs.
Mr. PATRICK FITZGERALD (U.S. Attorney, Chicago): Governor Blagojevich has been arrested in the middle of what we can only describe as a political corruption crime spree. We acted to stop that crime spree.
SCHAPER: Chicago's U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald announced fraud, racketeering, and conspiracy charges at a news conference later that day. He laid out scheme after scheme in which Blagojevich alleged used his office for personal gain.
Mr. FITZGERALD: But the most cynical behavior in all this, the most appalling, is the fact that Governor Blagojevich tried to sell the appointment of the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Obama. The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave.
SCHAPER: Prosecutors say Blagojevich is caught on tape allegedly trying to leverage his power to appoint Mr. Obama's successor into a cabinet level appointment, lucrative jobs for himself or his wife, or a half a million dollars in campaign funds.
In one tape-recorded conversation a month before his arrest, Blagojevich is heard saying, quote, "I've got this thing and it's bleeping golden. I'm just not giving it up for bleeping nothing." To prosecutors playing the defendant's voice to a jury making those comments might just be bleeping golden.
Mr. RON SAFER (Defense lawyer): Tape recordings are powerful evidence.
SCHAPER: Ron Safer is a former federal prosecutor and now a prominent white collar criminal defense lawyer.
Mr. SAFER: One of things that's truly unique about this case is the breadth of the alleged corruption. It is literally breathtaking.
SCHAPER: Prosecutors say they have a whopping 500 hours of recorded conversations between Blagojevich and some of his closest aides, and his brother, Robert, who headed Blagojevich's campaign fund. Robert Blagojevich is also charged in the case and will stand trial alongside the former governor.
And the Feds were only listening for less than two months before his arrest. The 24 count indict alleges corrupt activity dating back six years. Three of Blagojevich's former top aides have already pleaded guilty and will testify against him and other Blagojevich insiders may testify, too. Andy Shaw is executive director of the Chicago-based corruption-fighting nonprofit the Better Government Association.
Mr. ANDY SHAW (Executive Director, Better Government Association): If the government's case is true, this the most cynical, hypocritical, disingenuous, approach to government in the history of Illinois and maybe most other states.
SCHAPER: But while most criminal defendants invoke their right to remain silent, Blagojevich has been anything but.
Gov. BLAGOJEVICH: Rod Blagojevich. I used to be the governor of Illinois. Hi.
SCHAPER: Since his arrest, Blagojevich has done one talk show after another, from David Letterman to "The View." He's appeared as an Elvis impersonator and on reality TV, on Donald Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice."
(Soundbite of TV show, "Celebrity Apprentice")
Gov. BLAGOJEVICH: Well, I'll do anything - legal and ethical and honest.
SCHAPER: And every chance he has, Blagojevich both proclaims his innocence and attacks the prosecution.
Gov. BLAGOJEVICH: They are cowards and they are liars.
SCHAPER: In April, Blagojevich ripped federal prosecutors for opposing his effort to play for the jury every minute of those 500 hours of secretly recorded conversations.
Gov. BLAGOJEVICH: And the reason they won't play all those tapes is they're covering up that big lie that foreseeably led to a chain of events that stole a governor from the people of Illinois and undid the will of the people.
SCHAPER: Blagojevich's defense team plans to argue that he was simply engaged in political horse trading, trying to get the most he could for the people of Illinois, and not himself, in cutting his deals. Blagojevich wants to take the stand in his own defense, in a trial that could last all summer.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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