SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Rod Blagojevich's voice resonated through the Illinois Senate at his impeachment trial Tuesday in the first tantalizing airing of the undercover recordings that triggered his arrest on federal corruption charges.
But the snippets of bugged phone calls cut both ways for House prosecutors trying to boost their case for removing the governor by using his own words against him. Some senators said the recordings strengthened their resolve against the two-term Democrat, but several others said the meaning was ambiguous and left them with new doubts about the criminal charges at the heart of the impeachment effort.
U.S. Senate seat.
The much-anticipated sound bites of Blagojevich reverberated through a political body whose members often have walked the fine line between pushing legislation for a special interest and taking campaign contributions from supporters.
Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood), an assistant majority leader feeling pressure from constituents to oust Blagojevich, said she and a growing number of colleagues believe the "federal case isn't strong." At the same time, she criticized Blagojevich for boycotting the proceedings in favor of a national media campaign blasting the trial as unfair.
"The governor [and his defense counsel] should have been there, in my opinion, to defend themselves," Lightford said. "I think they would have had a grand opportunity to take some context and turn it into substance because I just felt like there wasn't much substance to it today."
Instead, Blagojevich was in New York, where he kept up a frenetic pace of interviews with television stations, completing 16 stops over two days as he argued that the Senate rules were unfairly stacked against him.
In a FOX radio interview, Blagojevich remained true to his style of comparing himself to iconic figures, likening his battles with the state legislators to the fights President Franklin D. Roosevelt had with Congress over helping England in World War II.
Blagojevich acknowledged on MSNBC that he soon would have to "find some employment," but also compared himself to the "hundreds of thousands of people across America who, unfortunately, are losing their jobs because this economy is so bad."
Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan lashed out at Blagojevich for "making a mockery of the constitution" by failing to participate in his impeachment trial. She predicted that the governor could be out of office by Thursday.
Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) urged Blagojevich to appear at the Capitol to plead his case in person before lawmakers vote on whether to convict and remove him from office.
"He's not appreciating, I don't think, the seriousness of this matter, and he is not appreciating the fact that he can come to defend himself," Cullerton said, because "we're only hearing one side so far."
For the first time, senators heard from FBI Special Agent Daniel Cain, who confirmed line-by-line the accuracy of a his 76-page affidavit that outlined the sweeping corruption charges that led to Blagojevich's Dec. 9 arrest.
The affidavit included allegations that the governor tried to shake down a top official at a children's hospital in exchange for a campaign donation and sought to get editorial writers at the Chicago Tribune fired as a condition of giving financial aid to Tribune Co.'s Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.
But his tedious testimony gave way to the only major drama of the day. As the four recordings played, senators leaned forward in their seats trying to hear the sometimes scratchy conversations between Blagojevich, the governor's brother, Robert; and Lon Monk, a lobbyist who allegedly acted as the governor's go-between with Balmoral Park track owner John Johnston.
Federal prosecutors say the discussions were part of an effort to squeeze campaign contributions from Johnston in exchange for Blagojevich signing a bill to divert a percentage of casino revenue to the horse-racing industry. They also have said the governor was concerned about getting the donations before the end of the year when an ethics law would place a cap on contributions.
In a Nov. 13 conversation, Robert Blagojevich, also the governor's campaign manager, is heard telling the governor that Monk says " Johnny Johnston is good for it." Blagojevich responded, "Before the end of the year though, right?"
Days after he was arrested, Blagojevich signed the bill.
Michael Shepard, an attorney for Monk, said he had no comment because "Lon isn't a party to the proceedings and hasn't been charged with any wrongdoing."
Daniel Reinberg, Johnston's attorney, said his cli- ent didn't make the contribution to the governor's campaign. Though he gave several donations dating to 2002, Johnston's last donation to Blagojevich was in December 2007.
Reinberg declined to detail Johnston's discussions beyond the recordings but said Johnston "was put in a horrible position by the governor and Mr. Monk."
Johnston, who is not a target of the probe, has talked to prosecutors and expects to be a witness if there is a Blagojevich trial, Reinberg said.
It was Cain's repeated refusal to answer dozens of questions from lawmakers, based on advice from a federal prosecutor at his side, that prompted several senators to wonder about the strength of the impeachment case.
"The governor may be guilty as sin," said Sen. Mike Jacobs (D-East Moline), "but the tapes I heard today, they might have been close to the line, but I don't think they crossed the line."
To be fair, said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), "we owe it to the people of this state, we even owe it to the governor, like him or not, to hear everything, and digest it and make a decision."
FBI plays wiretaps of Rod Blagojevich at state Senate impeachment trial
Governor's voice is heard at Senate trial— via recording—in what FBI says is a pay-to-play deal