Rod Blagojevich may have been governor of Illinois but often appeared to do everything but run the state, dwelling instead on his political fortunes and his family's finances, two former top aides to Blagojevich testified at his political corruption trial on Monday.
Bradley Tusk, once Illinois' deputy governor, said Blagojevich quickly grew detached after taking office in 2003. The governor was rarely in the office, hard to track down and even tried to shake down his political pal Rahm Emanuel, Tusk said.
Blagojevich was frequently unavailable when crucial decisions needed to be made on signing or vetoing bills, Tusk said. The responsibility for giving an up or down to legislation, said Tusk, often was ceded to him, even though he was all of 29 years old. "He wasn't always engaged in the process," said Tusk, adding that he once had to hunt down the governor at his tailor.
Meanwhile, John Harris, the chief of staff arrested with Blagojevich in 2008, said the governor in his last months as the state's chief executive was busy plotting his escape from elected office, weaving personal moneymaking schemes and ordering retribution be served on those who declined to help.
Harris, testifying under a plea deal with prosecutors, said Blagojevich spoke of packing the University of Illinois board of trustees so it would one day hire him as an adjunct professor. He also told Harris to explore paid state posts for Blagojevich's wife, Patti, as well as lean on financial firms that did business with the state to hire her, Harris said. When two of those firms balked, Harris said he was ordered by Blagojevich to turn off their spigot of state business.
The portrait of Blagojevich woven by Tusk and Harris was of someone who was cavalier about his responsibilities to voters and not shy about using his powers — legally or not — for personal and political benefit.
The backdrop for much of Tusk's testimony was a charge by prosecutors that Blagojevich in 2006 tried to shake down Emanuel for fundraising help in exchange for the release of a $2 million grant promised to an experimental Northwest Side school. Emanuel, now the chief of staff for President Barack Obama, at the time was a member of the U.S. House, and the school was in his district.
Blagojevich promised the grant, to build an athletic field, as a favor to Emanuel. The school, the Chicago Academy, began construction in the summer of 2006 expecting the state money to show up soon to pay contractors. When it didn't arrive, contractors threatened to stop work, a school official testified Monday.
Tusk, now a New York political consultant, said he fielded complaints from a "very upset" Emanuel and took those concerns to Blagojevich. "He said before the grant could be released he wanted Congressman Emanuel's brother to hold a fundraiser," said Tusk, adding that Blagojevich appeared dead serious about holding the grant hostage.
Emanuel's brother, Ari, is a top Hollywood talent agent who is known for his prowess in raising political money from donors in show business.
Tusk said he then called lobbyist John Wyma, who was close to both Blagojevich and Emanuel, to make sure that Wyma did not pass along the governor's threat. Then, Tusk said, he contacted Blagojevich's general counsel Bill Quinlan to make sure he also reined in the governor. "You need to get your client under control," Tusk said he told Quinlan.
Tusk turned in his resignation the next month, though he remained a few more months until after Blagojevich's 2006 election. In an interview following his testimony, Tusk said he had always intended to leave at the end of Blagojevich's first term but added that he was "disturbed by what I heard" from Blagojevich.
Harris' testimony in many ways echoed that of Tusk. Harris said he found Blagojevich intensely focused on family money issues and landing a well-paying job for his wife. One of Blagojevich's ideas was to appoint her to the state's Pollution Control Board, Harris said, mostly because the post paid more than $100,000.
"I told him I didn't think it was a good idea," recalled Harris, adding that he informed Blagojevich that she lacked the legal qualifications for the post, which required technical expertise in pollution control.
Harris said he also told the governor that the post required a lot of reading and research and attendance at weekly meetings. Harris testified said Blagojevich had left the impression he wanted something for his wife "that paid but didn't require a lot of work or a lot of time."
Harris said Blagojevich floated the notion of hiring his wife to work on his own staff as a senior policy adviser. He also pushed him to find financial firms doing state business who might be willing to take on Patti Blagojevich, who had received a license to be a financial adviser.
Harris said he contacted two firms — Citibank and Ariel Capital — though he made it clear to both he knew they couldn't hire her and didn't really wish them to try. They didn't, though both granted interviews to the governor's wife, Harris said.
Blagojevich grew angry when those jobs didn't pan out, ordering Harris to block state business for the two firms. "He didn't think they had done enough to help Patti," Harris explained.
Before Tusk and Harris took the stand, lawyers in the case finished with Ali Ata, the former executive director of the Illinois Finance Authority who had testified earlier that he was given his state post after making contributions to Blagojevich totaling some $50,000.
Prosecutors contend the skids were greased for Ata to win the post despite a law requiring Blagojevich to submit the names of two candidates for consideration.
To illustrate the point, the government called candidate No. 2 to testify.
CPA Michael Horst told jurors he never sought the job, didn't know he was even a candidate and would never had taken it if it were offered.
Horst said his name may have been floated because he was an accountant for a construction firm that shared an office building with a roofing company owned by top Blagojevich fundraiser and pal Christopher Kelly.
Horst said he met Kelly a few times at that building, including at Christmas parties, and knew him enough only to say hello.