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Blago judge warns against improper questioning

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Testimony in Rod Blagojevich’s retrial ended today with a stern lecture from U.S. District Judge James Zagel to the former governor’s defense team about what he considered improper questioning they had directed at two government witnesses.

“If you continue to do this, I will sit you down,” Zagel told attorney Aaron Goldstein.

During the cross-examinations today of Tom Balanoff and John Harris, Goldstein was swatted back with objection after objection by the prosecution – many sustained by Zagel.

But the question that drew the most concern from Zagel was when Goldstein asked Balanoff, a union leader, whether he went to authorities after Blagojevich allegedly floated the idea of appointing Valerie Jarrett to a vacant U.S. Senate seat in return for the then-governor getting a cabinet appointment.

“This one is really out of bounds,” Zagel said to Goldstein during the testimony. “I will explain to you when we are done.”
After dismissing the jury for the day, Zagel gave Goldstein his warning. When Blagojevich’s attorneys tried to respond, the judge stopped the discussion.

“I don’t want you to respond to it,” Zagel said. “I want you to comply with it.”


3:30 p.m. Objections fly as defense questions Blago witness

The going has been difficult today for Blagojevich's lawyer, Aaron Goldstein, as he conducted his cross-examination of government witness John Harris, who was chief of staff to the governor before their arrests in December 2008.

Prosecutors objected dozens of times to his questions, including his very first on the prosecution's marquee charge, the alleged sale of the U.S. Senate sale.

Goldstein followed up by asking if Harris was a prosecutor in military.

“If this is going where  I think it's going,” Zagel said, it would "transgress" on the judge's ruling that the defense can't argue Blagojevich was not guilty because he was surrounded by lawyers who didn't tell him he was doing anything wrong.

Harris said numerous politicians were in the running for the Senate opening, including Jarrett, then-Illinois Senate president Emil Jones and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. At one point, Goldstein asked if Harris himself had ever asked about the seat for himself.

"Like, idle curiosity? Because I'll let him answer, though I don't know what it has to do with this case," Zagel said after the government objected again.

Harris then answered that he had not asked for himself.

Another element the defense wants to stress is that the political climate in Springfield was frustrating for Blagojevich. But Goldstein was often thwarted when he tried to show that Blagojevich had to go around the General Assembly to get things done.

Zagel sustained a long series of government objections.

Did Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan pose a big roadblock? Objection. Sustained.

Was it difficult for the governor to get any legislation through the House? Objection. Sustained.

Did Harris know the governor wasn't getting a lot of bills passed? Objection. Sustained

"Don't go there," Zagel warned at one point.



Defense gets first crack at key Blago witness

11:40 a.m. CDT, May 9, 2011

Rod Blagojevich’s defense team is getting its first crack this morning at a major witness in the case against the former governor at his retrial.

Blagojevich’s attorney, Aaron Goldstein, began cross-examining John Harris, a former chief of staff to Blagojevich, by asking him about all of his contacts with the government since he was arrested with Blagojevich in December 2008.

Harris said he has spoken with prosecutors dozens of times over more than two years, prompting Goldstein to point out that his relationship with Blagojevich was about that long.

“I believe that the nature of the relationship is very different,” said Harris, who indicated he was close to Blagojevich when he worked as his top aide. “My relationship with them (prosecutors) is pursuant to my plea agreement.”

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Harris would normally face up to about 7 years in prison, but prosecutors will likely seek a reduced sentence in return for his cooperation and testimony. Goldstein pointed out that it’s the government that determines if a cooperating witness has been truthful, insinuating Harris could just be going along with the prosecution line.

Harris had testified last week how he helped Blagojevich “war game” ways to obtain a lucrative appointment or hefty campaign contributions in return for his power to name a successor to the U.S. Senate seat left open by Barack Obama's election as president in 2008. The jury heard a number of recordings of Harris and his then-boss talking about whether Blagojevich could get a Cabinet post in the new Obama administration or a job heading a charitable organization that  friends of Obama would fund.

Harris also had told the jury about conversations he had had with Blagojevich about the financial struggles of Illinois’ first family. Blagojevich’s wife, Patti, was having trouble with her real estate business, and Harris had testified last week about efforts to find her work.

One option Rod Blagojevich had discussed was finding a state job for his wife or placing her on a state board, Harris had said. Goldstein asked whether Blagojevich ever directed Harris to get his wife on something like the Illinois Pollution Control Board.

“No, he told me to be prepared to do so,” Harris answered.

Likewise, Harris said he knew that Patti Blagojevich never got a job with investment firms after he arranged for her to meet with leaders of a pair of Chicago companies.

Goldstein also tried to get Harris to discuss fundraising in the Blagojevich administration after he had testified last week that the former governor had a sense of urgency about raising money in the fall of 2008. At the end of that year, an ethics bill that curbed the ability to raise money from companies doing business with the state went into effect.

“Have you ever met a politician who didn’t have a sense of urgency about fundraising?” Goldstein asked.

That drew a government objection that U.S. District Judge James Zagel sustained.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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