Before the trial wrapped up for the day, Rod Blagojevich began testifying about charges he tried to force a campaign donation from a horseracing executive by holding off on signing a bill that diverted casino funds to the struggling horse tracks in Illinois.
Blagojevich’s lawyer, Aaron Goldstein, asked whether Blagojevich had delayed signing the legislation to extort Johnny Johnston, a track owner who testified he felt a Blagojevich adviser had connected a campaign contribution to the signing.
“No,” said Blagojevich, sounding as if he were disgusted by the idea.
Blagojevich painted Johnston – as well as other alleged victims -- as political players who were used to giving campaign money.
The former governor said he had a good relationship with Johnston and his father, fellow horseman Billy Johnston.
“A very good relationship; they were big supporters,” he said. “They raised a lot of money for my campaigns.”
The Johnstons also expanded his fundraising universe, Blagojevich said. The father and son were partnered with the late George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees, he testified, remembering a Johnston fundraiser attended by Donald Trump and Regis Philbin.
Goldstein asked what John Johnston’s position was on lobbying, drawing an objection from Assistant U.S. Atty. Reid Schar.
“I object to that one, too,” Blagojevich said to his own lawyer. “I don’t understand it.”
Goldstein was trying to get at Johnston’s link to Alonzo “Lon” Monk, a former Blagojevich chief of staff who went on to lobby for the Johnstons.
At that point U.S. District Judge Zagel sent the jury home until tomorrow morning – a rare Friday session for the trial.
The judge said Blagojevich’s testimony will end at noon tomorrow and the jury would recess for the holiday weekend.
Blago on fundraising: 'Gives you independence'¿¿¿
4:28 p.m. CDT May 26, 2011
Rod Blagojevich's testimony has moved to the key year in his corruption case – 2008 – and to the topic of campaign fundraising.
Fundraising was very important to him, Blagojevich said, because it was a demonstration of political prowess. “To take your case, in the media age, to the people,” he said. “Unless you’re independently wealthy, this is how our laws are.”
Blagojevich then started to pontificate on the political influence of multimillionaire candidates, but U.S. District Judge James Zagel stopped him once again from speech-making.
“Oh, you’re right,” said Blagojevich, apologizing sheepishly as he has all afternoon.
Asked again to just answer why fundraising was important, Blagojevich replied: “If you’re in a strong political position, it gives you the independence to frankly lose friends if you’re trying to get results for people,” he said. “And even lose political allies.”
The year 2008 was a big one for him in terms of fundraising, Blagojevich said, because the amount of campaign money he was to report on required disclosure documents would reflect whether he might seek a third term or be viewed publically as a lame duck.
Added to that was the ethics legislation the jury has heard so much about. On Jan. 1, 2009, it was going to be illegal for the governor to raise funds from those that did business with Illinois.
“Then legally I would not be able to – nor was I going to – raise money from these same organizations, contractors, businesses, whomever, that I was before,” Blagojevich told the jury.
Blagojevich said he tried to amend the bill to apply to the General Assembly as well._______________________________________________________________________________
Blagojevich begins to testify about charges
4:15 p.m. CDT May 26, 2011¿¿¿¿¿¿¿¿¿
Rod Blagojevich has gotten to the actual charges in the trial this afternoon, addressing first allegations he held up a grant for a school to extort a campaign contribution.
Blagojevich allegedly tried to force the Hollywood-agent brother of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel –- who was then in Congress -– to hold a fundraiser for him in 2006. Emanuel had garnered a $2 million grant for new athletic fields for the Chicago Academy in Emanuel’s district.
Emanuel was a political ally, said Blagojevich, who recalled accompanying Emanuel to view the Oval Office when Blagojevich was running for office in 1996.
“It’s a lot smaller than it is in real life –- I mean on TV,” Blagojevich said.
Blagojevich said the school grant wasn’t really on his radar screen, but he denied doing anything to try to force campaign money from Emanuel’s brother.
Blagojevich said he first heard there was a problem with the school obtaining its money from his then-chief of staff, John Harris.
“I thought that he (Emanuel) got the money,” Blagojevich recalled telling Harris.
Earlier in the trial, prosecution witnesses said Blagojevich sat on the grant while waiting for the fundraiser to come through, and that it eventually was given to the school in pieces as bills came in.
Blagojevich testified that he told Harris to find out the grant’s status and just let him know what was going on with it.
“He told me that there was a school grant that was committed to Rahm,” Blagojevich said. “And that it was for a place called the Chicago Academy.”
That rang a bell for Blagojevich, he said, because the academy was housed in the former Wright Junior College in Chicago.
“I took the ACT exam there,” Blagojevich said. “Twice.”
Blagojevich testified that he was unsure whether the school had already gotten an earlier grant, so he ordered the money delivered in chunks.
“I said, ‘Ok, pay it out, pay it,’” Blagojevich said. “My feeling was this could’ve been a second grant they were getting. I told them, ‘Pay it out as the bills come in.’”
Blagojevich denied telling his former deputy governor, Bradley Tusk, that he was holding up the grant until he got a fundraiser from Emanuel.
"I did not," he told his lawyer.
Blago denies money tie for Jackson Jr.'s wife's job
4 p.m. CDT May 26, 2011
Rod Blagojevich testified today that he never tied a campaign contribution from U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. to giving Jackson's wife a top job in the state lottery.
His denial during his corruption trial came a day after Jackson testified that his wife didn't get a promised appointment to head the Illinois Lottery after Jackson refused to give Blagojevich a $25,000 campaign donation.
Jackson said Blagojevich later cited that refusal as one reason for not appointing his wife.
But Blagojevich told jurors, "I don't remember anything remotely like that."
Blagojevich's attorneys filed a motion for a mistrial earlier today, citing Jackson's claim.
Blago denies plotting to make money off actions as gov
3:14 p.m. CDT May 26, 2011
Rod Blagojevich’s testimony has at times sounded more like a campaign speech.
He sought election as governor in 2002, Blagojevich said, because “you can drive policies and push things.” By contrast, a congressman is just one of 435 members of the U.S. House.
Earlier in the trial, prosecutors had played for the jury a video of Blagojevich taking the oath of office. So his lawyer, Aaron Goldstein, asked what the oath meant to him when he was sworn in as governor in 2003 and 2007.
“The oath meant to me that I would obviously follow the law and the constitution of Illinois,” he said. But more than that, Blagojevich continued, it was a promise “to fight for people and try to push and prod the system and never take no for an answer.”
He wanted to help “real average ordinary people,” such as his blue-collar parents, said Blagojevich, sometimes looking toward jurors, who gave away little with their expressions.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life,” Blagojevich said, but he believes he has done “tangible meaningful things for working people,” he said.
Blagojevich then answered a key allegation leveled by his former chief of staff, Lon Monk, who testified that he, the then-governor and fundraisers Antoin “Tony” Rezko and Chris Kelly plotted to make money from Blagojevich’s time in office.
One such meeting took place in California, where Rezko wrote up money-making ideas on an easel, Monk had said.
“I never had a meeting in California or anywhere where I talked about how I might make money off of state action with those guys. Ever. Never,” Blagojevich said emphatically.
Why Blago got into politics: 'A better shot with Patti'
3 p.m. CDT May 26, 2011
After about three hours on the stand, Rod Blagojevich has finally begun testifying about getting involved in politics.
Turns out it was for love.
Blagojevich said he worked a precinct for his future father-in-law, Chicago Ald. Richard Mell. He was proud of the number of signs he got in neighborhood windows, he said, and thought Mell would be pleased.
“I thought it was actually good on the romantic side too. I’d have a better shot with Patti,” he said.
It was Mell who also asked him to run for the state legislature, despite thinking he would lose and despite his last name. Blagojevich said he recalled asking if he could make his own decision on the issues.
“He said, ‘I don’t give an F about that,’ ” said Blagojevich, chuckling.
Blagojevich’s testimony sped quickly through his early days in Springfield when Jim Edgar was governor and said he learned quickly that House Speaker Michael Madigan might be the most powerful man in the state.
He won election to Congress in the 5th District in March 1996, Blagojevich recalled. It was there he said he got to know U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
“I really liked Jesse Jackson Jr. in the very beginning,” said Blagojevich, recalling Jackson as a rising star who was fun to be around.
“I saw him as frankly Barack Obama, as someone who had the potential to be what Barack Obama became,” Blagojevich testified.
Blagojevich then chopped at Jackson’s testimony yesterday. Jackson accused Blagojevich of speaking like Elvis as he shook him down for campaign money. The former governor denied the allegation that he requested $25,000 in campaign money. Jackson had linked his refusal to pay the $25,000 to Blagojevich’s refusal to give his wife, Sandi, a state post.
“I have no recollection that he ever, ever talked to me ever” about it, Blagojevich said.
And as for snapping like Elvis, as Jackson said, and saying he should have made the donation?
“No, I don’t remember anything remotely like that,” Blagojevich said. ___________________________________________________________________________________
Prosecutors try to speed up Blago's life story
2:12 p.m. CDT May 26, 2011
Prosecutors have brought up Rod Blagojevich’s mile-a-minute recitation of his life history as the afternoon session started outside the jury’s presence. Assistant U.S. Atty. Reid Schar suggested Blagojevich cut down on the narrative answers and “be responsive to the actual question” from his lawyers.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel said the testimony has been “fine,” though that could change if Blagojevich starts arguing from the stand when the questioning moves to the charged conduct in the case.
This early part of the testimony is meant for Blagojevich to have a chance to tell his story, Zagel said, “and he’s taking it.”
With the jury back in the courtroom after lunch, Blagojevich’s lawyer Aaron Goldstein then restarted his questioning, moving right back to the topic that had caused Blagojevich to choke up just before the break -- his wife, Patti.
Blagojevich recalled meeting her at a political fundraiser in 1988. "She was wearing a red dress," said Blagojevich, who said he fell in love with her soon after.
From there it was testimony about the deaths of his parents. Blagojevich said he held his mother's hand as she died but had missed that experience with his father, taking the news over the phone.
He's always had "a little bit of guilt that I wasn't there for my dad," he said.
Blagojevich also corrected what he said earlier, that he had never handled any federal case as a lawyer. He told the jury he had worked on some immigration matters.
The defense has clearly been attempting to portray Blagojevich as a scrappy, comeback kid from Chicago who is used to being knocked down and then dusting himself off for more.
The fact that he was an average law student who became a middling lawyer has been a theme, as the defense tries to keep it fresh in juror’s minds that Blagojevich is not a legal scholar who should have known that what he allegedly did in the fall of 2008 was criminal.
Judge calls break after Blago chokes up
1:18 p.m. CDT May 26, 2011
A federal judge called for a break for lunch when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, testifying in his own defense at his corruption retrial, choked up as he began to describe meeting his wife, Patti.
If today’s testimony so far is any guide, Blagojevich’s marathon life story apparently is going to be published in multiple volumes. The former governor had taken jurors only from his childhood to his years as a young lawyer by lunchtime.
So far nothing about his political career, which was jump-started by marrying into the family of Ald. Richard Mell, Patti’s dad.
The narrative is packed with name-dropping, awe-shucks style humility and extreme trivia. (College pal Lon Monk’s dad is an obstetrician who delivered tennis star Traci Austin. Blagojevich’s time for his first marathon in 1984 was 2 hours, 55 minutes and 30 seconds.)
There have also been so brief moments of confessional. Blagojevich acknowledging he flunked the bar exam the first time he took it. And there was this about why he has become an avid jogger: “I have a vain quality. There’s a certain narcissism. I exercise less for the health reasons than to stay in shape.”
Given the fact that Blagojevich has never been shy as a politician in talking about himself, some of the most poignant memories he related for jurors appear to conflict with things he has said in other venues. Like why he became a Democrat.
As he explained it this morning, Blagojevich said he was moved by hearing reports of a speech given by Bobby Kennedy to an audience in Indianapolis the night in 1968 that Martin Luther King was assassinated. He recited some of the speech, even briefly trying to imitate Kennedy’s Boston accent.
“That’s maybe why I became a Democrat,” said Blagojevich, noting that his father and brother were Republicans.
Problem with the story is that Blagojevich has acknowledged being an unabashed Republican throughout college and law school, both of which he attended years after 1968. He has also admitted to being enthralled with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
As he continued his narrative, Blagojevich also related early interactions as a recent law graduate with then-Chicago Ald. Ed Vrdolyak, the nemesis of the late Mayor Harold Washington who became a peripheral figure in the criminal investigation that ultimately led to Blagojevich’s arrest. Vrdolyak is in prison for his role in a crooked real estate deal.
Blago tells all: About childhood, hobbies, schooling
11:27 a.m. CDT May 26, 2011
Rod Blagojevich has spent the first hour on the witness stand going into minute detail about his childhood, his hobbies, his schooling, his insecurities, his family. And on and on.
Blagojevich appeared to choke up when he talked about his hard-working immigrant parents.
“It gives you a certain sense of values and certain sense of helping others,” Blagojevich said. “I think I picked up my dad’s propensity to dream…I got a chance to be governor of the fifth biggest state in America and I always thought my parents were part of that.”
The purpose of all this is to try to portray a softer vision of Blagojevich for jurors than the foul-mouthed, scheming politician they have heard on government wiretaps during the corruption retrial.
Blagojevich has talked about his early love of reading World Book encyclopedias, a teacher he loved named Miss Dibble, how his fascination with Teddy Roosevelt, who as a youngster took up boxing, led the future governor to try Golden Gloves boxing himself. He didn’t do very well.
Then there was this: “I had a man crush on Alexander Hamilton.”
Blagojevich spent his first two years as an undergraduate at Northwestern University in Evanston, where he said he felt out of place.
“Some of what I am, deep down there are certain insecurities,” Blagojevich said. “I always felt that these kids at Northwestern, they came from wealthier families and better schools. I always felt they were smarter than me.”
Blagojevich attended Northwestern in the 1970s. “This was the disco era. Age of polyester,” Blagojevich said. “I had that disco look. Black leather jacket and polyester black pants. Right out of Saturday Night Fever.”
“As I got older,” he continued. “I started wearing less polyester.”
Blagojevich’s lawyer, Aaron Goldstein, then said: “I got to ask you. Are you still in that era when it comes to the hair?”
“Those habits start early in life and that hasn’t changed,” Blagojevich said.
Goldstein then asked Blagojevich about the profanity-laced comments he is heard uttering over and over again on government wiretaps, a leading question designed to give Blagojevich a chance to atone.
“I’d like to apologize to the women and men for those terrible words,” Blagojevich said. “When I hear myself on tape swearing like that I’m an f-ing jerk and I apologize for that.”
Blago takes the stand: 'I'm here to tell you the truth'
10:48 a.m. CDT May 26, 2011
Rod Blagojevich took the witness stand at his corruption trial this morning and told jurors he was there to "tell you the truth."
“Rod, introduce yourself to the ladies and gentleman of the jury,” attorney Aaron Goldstein said as he began questioning the former governor.
“I’m Rod Blagojevich, I used to be governor. I’m here to tell you the truth.”
“How you feeling today?” Goldstein asked.
Blagojevich responded he had “mixed” feelings, saying he had waited 2 1/2 years “to get my side of the story out.”
Goldstein then worked to humanize the former governor in the eyes of jurors with folksy questions about Blagojevich’s humble background.
When Blagojevich said he flunked drafting in high school, Goldstein asked him: “Rod, how did you flunk drafting?”
Goldstein also asked Blagojevich about his lack of prowess in Little League. “How did you do?” Goldstein asked.
“1 for 12 that year,” Blagojevich saiid of his one year in Little League. “I’ll never forget it was a single between the shortstop and third baseman.”
Blagojevich said that inspired him to try to be an NBA player instead, making the basketball team in high school but breaking his wrist and never doing much after that.
“I think when I was governor, of the 50 of us in America, I was the only one who could spin a basketball on his finger,” Blagojevich interjected.
And so it has been going this morning, with Blagojevich describing how he and his brother took jobs as shoe shine boys when they were little and how one summer when he still entertained hoop dreams he wore ankle weights for weeks trying to strengthen his legs. _______________________________________________________________________________
Blago defense seeks mistrial over Jackson testimony
10:04 a.m. CDT May 26, 2011
Testimony by U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. apparently has Rod Blagojevich's defense team all shook up.
His attorneys have filed a mistrial motion -- their second this week -- over Jackson’s allegation that Blagojevich impersonated Elvis Presley while shaking him down for campaign money.
Jackson testified on Wednesday, under cross-examination, that he had declined to give Blagojevich a donation and had then tried unsuccessfully to get his wife a state job. Jackson said Blagojevich snapped his fingers and told him, in Elvis-style, “You should have given me that $25,000.”
In their new motion, defense lawyers say they were well aware of the allegation, but did not believe they had opened the door for prosecutors to bring it up during their questioning of Jackson.
“The government’s theory for its relevance – that it explains Jackson’s state of mind as to the bad relationship between the two men -- is not probative to any material fact,” the motion states. “Its relevance is highly questionable. Weighed against the prejudicial effect of Jackson’s claim, this evidence should not have been presented.”
The motion also takes issue with how few recordings the defense so far is being told it can play during Blagojevich’s planned testimony, which could begin today.
The defense team had asked to play 52 recordings it believes show Blagojevich wanted to make a legitimate political deal in appointing someone to the U.S. Senate to replace Barack Obama.
“That number has been whittled down to one recording,” the motion states.
The motion says that number is “mind-boggling" and tries to bring the point home by marking the number “1” with a footnote that reads: “This is not a typo. It reads: “one” recording.”
U.S. District Judge James Zagel today is to consider more recordings the defense wants to play.
Blagojevich arrived at the courthouse with his wife, Patti, shortly after 9:30 a.m. Carrying a thick, black binder, the governor briefly stopped to talk with reporters and onlookers on his way in.
The interaction was cut short, however, when Patti Blagojevich -- who had walked into the building ahead of her husband -- knocked on the lobby window and motioned for him to come inside.
The light rain and dark clouds once again led to the Blagojeviches arriving at the courthouse with the Girl Scout cookie umbrella that sparked much Internet interest Wednesday.
Blagojevich could take stand as soon as today
7:56 a.m. CDT May 26, 2011
Rod Blagojevich could testify as soon as today in his corruption retrial, a day after the former governor began his defense by calling to the stand two two big names of Chicago politics: Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
Blagojevich has vowed to testify at the retrial after the first jury last summer deadlocked on all but one charge, convicting him on one count of lying to the FBI.
It will be up to the former governor to convince jurors that he wasn't trying to sell the Senate seat but rather trying to arrange a legitimate political deal involving Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and her powerful father and Blagojevich nemesis, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
The main thrust of Blagojevich's defense is that he wanted to name Lisa Madigan to the Senate if her father would agree to back the governor's activist legislative agenda in Springfield.
But U.S. District Judge James Zagel late Wednesday limited the defense from playing a number of secretly recorded conversations where Blagojevich discussed the outlines of a potential bargain with political leaders, including Emanuel and Dennis Hastert, the former Illinois congressman and speaker of the U.S. House.
The defense argues Blagojevich never had a chance to pursue this because he was arrested before it got off the ground. It hoped the undercover recordings would prove to jurors that the proposal was sincere.
Zagel acknowledged that Blagojevich talked with advisers about the idea, but the judge said Blagojevich hadn't so far demonstrated there was anything real about it because there was no evidence it had ever been broached to the Madigans.
Zagel likened the situation to a man who puts a message in a bottle and the intended recipient "either doesn't get the bottle or he doesn't care."
Blagojevich can do the job of explaining his state of mind better than any recordings, the judge said, and some of those wiretaps could be played if the government attacks the former governor's contention that the Madigan deal was real.
"I would be surprised that he could not defend himself," said Zagel. "I know what he did for a living. Spend every day defending yourself from hostile questions."
As Blagojevich began his defense Wednesday, Emanuel took the stand for all of three minutes and said he had no personal knowledge of some of the alleged shakedown attempts for which Blagojevich has been charged.
But it was the testimony of Jackson Jr. that had more of an impact on Blagojevich's defense.
Jackson was called to say he knew nothing about a prosecution claim that Blagojevich was angling to install Jackson in the U.S. Senate in exchange for $1.5 million in campaign cash from supporters of the congressman.
But when prosecutors got their turn with Jackson, they asked him about soured relations with Blagojevich that the congressman said stemmed from his refusal to endorse him for governor in the 2002 Democratic primary or give him a requested $25,000 donation. Jackson said he nonetheless later tried to get his wife, Sandi, now a Chicago alderman, a post as director of the Illinois Lottery, only to see it fall through.
Jackson said Blagojevich brought up the lottery post when the two ran into each other at a Washington event some months later. According to Jackson, Blagojevich was leaving when he did an imitation of the late Elvis Presley, one of his heroes, tilting his head and snapping his fingers. But instead of saying "thank you very much" in classic Elvis style, Jackson said Blagojevich told him, "You should have given me that $25,000."
The Elvis quote wasn't a surprise to Blagojevich's lawyers, but they nonetheless did little to challenge it Wednesday, creating the possibility that it could reinforce in the minds of jurors that the ex-governor routinely sought to trade government jobs for campaign cash — a charge leveled by prosecutors.
Blagojevich flatly denied the Elvis incident as he left the federal courthouse Wednesday.
"All I can tell you is that it's absurd," he told reporters. "It's not true. It didn't happen."
Emanuel's testimony was much less noteworthy — except for him being dragged into court at all. He drew stares from the jury and a packed gallery of spectators — a rare sight for the retrial — as he made his way to the front of the courtroom.
The Blagojevich defense had called Emanuel intending to ask him about his dealings with Blagojevich and his representatives when Blagojevich was trying to discuss choosing someone to succeed Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate. It was after Obama had been elected president in 2008 and as Emanuel was leaving Congress to become Obama's White House chief of staff.
The mayor said he advocated for Obama friend Valerie Jarrett to get the Senate seat but gave a curt "no" when asked by Blagojevich's lawyer Sheldon Sorosky if he had ever been asked to set up a nonprofit organization to employ Blagojevich in exchange for a Jarrett appointment. Sorosky's question was deliberately narrow, ignoring other allegations that Blagojevich had sought to swap the Senate seat for a Cabinet post, ambassadorship or other jobs, and prosecutors could be free in closing arguments to highlight the omissions.
Before he got into the Senate questions, Sorosky began by asking Emanuel what his present job was.
"Thank you. Mayor of the city of Chicago," the mayor of the city of Chicago said.
Emanuel also figured in another allegation in the case involving an alleged 2006 shakedown attempt by Blagojevich when Emanuel was still a North Side congressman. Prosecutors charge Blagojevich held up a $2 million grant to a school in Emanuel's district while trying to squeeze the congressman into having his Hollywood talent agent brother hold a fundraiser for the governor.
Under questioning from Sorosky, Emanuel said he knew nothing of a shakedown attempt. Prosecutors agree, having already called former Blagojevich aides who said they shielded Emanuel from Blagojevich's threat.
And that was it for Emanuel.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun