Before Rod Blagojevich’s retrial ended for the day, the former governor addressed in the most detail yet the charges he tried to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat.
Blagojevich denied interest after his brother, Robert, the former governor’s fundraising chief, had received an offer for “accelerated fundraising” from supporters of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson if he was appointed Senator.
“My position was, no, not interested in it,” Blagojevich said. “I wasn’t interested in making an appointment of a U.S. senator in exchange for campaign fundraising or accelerated fundraising from my Indo-American supporters. I didn’t want to do it.”
Later, in a recorded call, Blagojevich told Deputy Gov. Robert Greenlee he had been approached “pay-to-play” and that Jackson supporters were calling his house and making offers.
“It was irritating,” Blagojevich testified. “It just was over the top.”
At the end of October 2008, a Jackson appointment was a non-starter, Blagojevich testified.
“I was opposed to the offer of fundraising in exchange for the Senate seat,” Blagojevich said. “I had no intention of appointing Congressman Jackson, with or without that situation.”
Among those advising him was Dennis Hastert, former speaker of the U.S. House. Hastert was firm with him, Blagojevich said, saying whatever the process is, “this is your decision.”
Blagojevich said he sought advice from many places. After all, his lawyer, Aaron Goldstein, pointed out, he had never appointed a senator before.
“Never want to again either,” Blagojevich said.
Blagojevich then addressed charges that he had tried to barter an arrangement for Obama friend Valerie Jarrett in exchange for a cabinet post in the Obama administration.
In a recorded call, his then-chief of staff, John Harris, told Blagojevich he had heard from Rahm Emanuel, who was leaving Congress to become Obama’s White House chief of staff. Emanuel had told Harris that there was an Obama preference. In their later conversation, Blagojevich had asked Harris what he thought he could get for that.
Blagojevich explained from the witness stand what he meant.
“Is there a potential horse-trade – legal?” Blagojevich testified. “Whether there’s something I might be able to get as part of that horse-trade.”
Before the recorded call was over, Blagojevich had thrown out the idea of being appointed as secretary of Health and Human Services.
“I throw out… the position because I wondered if there might be a role for me to help President Obama expand health care to every American,” Blagojevich explained in court. Blagojevich said he knew it was not realistic, pulling out a quote from poet Robert Browning.
“Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?” Blagojevich said.
Blagojevich also contended that part of the recorded call was deleted. It was his answer when Harris said to him that he could get good things for the people of Illinois.
Blagojevich said he answered that that was always his priority. “My definition for ‘f’ing golden,’ if you will,” he said.
5 p.m. Blago sought Senate seat deal so he 'could do good things for people'
As early as the summer of 2008, Rod Blagojevich said he had lots of ideas about whom to appoint to Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat if Obama was elected president.
The backbone of the defense is that Blagojevich planned to appoint Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan as part of a political deal with her father, powerful Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, so that his legislative agenda would win legislative approval. Blagojevich testified that the legislation “could do good things for people.”
Blagojevich testified he feared that if he didn’t appoint Madigan’s daughter, the speaker would “be the more punitive and we’ll get even more gridlock.”
“Her father was my nemesis,” he said, though he called Michael Madigan a very good dad. Blagojevich said he often tried to get advice from him on raising kids in a political environment, drawing an objection from prosecutors.
“I just want to say something nice about him, judge,” Blagojevich told U.S. District Judge James Zagel.
Blagojevich said he had three main conditions for the deal to happen. Michael Madigan would have to pass the capital bill to get state projects going, health care for the poor would be expanded, and there would be no state income tax increase.
Blagojevich’s lawyer, Aaron Goldstein, asked whose idea that was.
“I think it was me,” Blagojevich said.
Other possible candidates, Blagojevich testified, included “an African-American war hero” as well as U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, who he called “a good, solid possible pick” for the Senate seat.
Blagojevich testified he thought it was important that the only black U.S. Senator be replaced by another African-American.
“I wanted an African-American Tammy Duckworth,” he said in a reference to the disabled veteran of Asian-American descent who lost both legs in the Iraq War. “That’s what I was looking for.”
After 3 days on stand, Blago talks about Senate seat
4:23 p.m. CDT May 31, 2011
It took most of three days on the witness stand, but Rod Blagojevich has moved on to the marquee charge in the case: that he allegedly attempted to sell an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he was elected president in 2008.
In the fall of 2008, Blagojevich said he talked “incessantly” about the seat.
“It’s fair to say I talked a lot during that time period,” he said. “It’s fair to say I’ve talked a lot during this time period (the trial). It’s fair to say I talk a lot.”
Blagojevich is accused of trying to snare a cabinet post, ambassadorship or job leading a charitable organization in exchange for naming Obama friend Valerie Jarrett to the post. Later, he allegedly considered appointing U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in exchange for $1.5 million in campaign cash from Jackson supporters.
Blagojevich said he was “hunkered down” in his home that fall to make a decision.
“I thought that this Senate seat was one of my last, best opportunities” to make a good decision, Blagojevich said. He wanted to talk everything out and often used his chief of staff, John Harris, as a sounding board for all of his ideas.
“The good ones, the bad ones, the stupid ones, the ugly ones,” Blagojevich said.
He also consulted with his general counsel, Bill Quinlan, he said.
“There was nothing I would do of any magnitude” without talking to Quinlan, Blagojevich said.
His attorney, Aaron Goldstein, played a recording of a call from the night of Dec. 4, 2008, after aides had told him that a Tribune reporter had called for a comment for a story for the next day’s newspaper revealing that then then-governor had been secretly recorded by federal authorities and that his friend, lobbyist John Wyma, was cooperating in the investigation.
Blagojevich could be heard talking to Quinlan about what he might have said in conversations with Wyma.
“Could I have stumbled into crossing a line of some sort?” Blagojevich testified he was wondering.
Blagojevich talked to Quinlan on the call about the rate increase for Children’s Memorial Hospital and told him how efforts had been made to ask Patrick Magoon, its CEO, for a campaign contribution.
“One was not for the other,” Blagojevich said to Quinlan on the call.
Goldstein asked Blagojevich to explain what he meant.
“This was not on condition of government action,” Blagojevich testified. “There was the political track and the government side.”
Blago says he's unlucky but not guilty
3:19 p.m. CDT May 31, 2011
There’s being guilty of criminal activity -- and then there’s just being plain unlucky, as Rod Blagojevich suggests was the case for him.
As his testimony continues this afternoon, Blagojevich is portraying himself as simply a victim of his usual fundraising practices. When he needed to push for campaign money in the fall of 2008 as the feds were secretly listening in, he was just in the process of going back to those who had contributed to him in the past, he testified.
“They’re the low-hanging fruit, if you will,” Blagojevich said. “That’s where we begin.”
Blagojevich testified that donors such as Children’s Memorial Hospital CEO Patrick Magoon, road-building boss Gerald Krozel and horseracing executive John Johnston all had been helpful in the past. He wasn’t shaking them down for campaign cash, he was just pursuing friendly faces, Blagojevich maintained.
To prove the point, his lawyer, Aaron Goldstein, walked Blagojevich through a list of contributors on a fundraising chart that the government earlier had shown the jury. Blagojevich tried to discuss each of them, drawing another government objection.
Zagel told him to cut down on the biographical information. “I’m sympathetic to you because I have the same bad habit,” the judge said.
“Can I say great minds think alike?” Blagojevich said.
The defense played a recording from Nov. 12, 2008, in which Rod Blagojevich called his deputy governor, Robert Greenlee, and asks about the rate increase for Children’s Memorial Hospital.
Blagojevich asked Greenlee if he has total discretion over whether it goes ahead.
“So we could pull it back if we needed to, budgetary concerns, right?” Blagojevich said on the call, which was first played for the jury during the prosecution’s case.
“We sure could,” Greenlee answered.
“Okay, that's good to know,” Blagojevich said.
Blagojevich testified that he just wanted to know that information because he had already told his brother, Robert, his fundraising chief, that he would personally call Magoon to ask for a campaign contribution. When he asked Greenlee the question about whether the rate increase could be pulled back, he was only trying to make sure the hospital would get its money for sure, he said.
If the answer was that there was still a possibility the hospital wouldn’t get the rate increase, Blagojevich said he didn’t want to make the call.
He was relieved at Greenlee’s answer, he told the jury. “I didn’t want to call him anyway,” Blagojevich said.
Thinking the rate increase was still “hung up,” Blagojevich said he decided not to give Magoon a ring about a donation.
Blago says he didn't shake down hospital boss
2:43 p.m. CDT May 31, 2011
Rod Blagojevich has started the afternoon trial session by denying charges he tried to shake down the leader of Children's Memorial Hospital.
Blagojevich's attorney, Aaron Goldstein, asked whether Blagojevich threatened hospital CEO Patrick Magoon, demanded a fundraiser or tried to shake down Magoon. To each question, Blagojevich answered, "No." Blagojevich is accused of holding up a state increase in the rate of reimbursement for pediatric specialists in 2008 until Magoon made a sizable donation.
The allegation hits close to home for Blagojevich, who tried to make health care – and especially health care for children – a pillar of his political career. That was clear in how Goldstein tried to set up the issue.
He asked Blagojevich whether anything in his own life had influenced his interest in the issue. Blagojevich tried to answer that he lost a young cousin in 1967, but a prosecutor objected before he could fully give the jury the background.
"My life experiences shaped my commitment…" Blagojevich said before Assistant U.S. Atty. Reid Schar cut him off again, throwing up his arms in protest. Blagojevich later slipped in that his cousin was 12 when he died.
Prosecutors contend Blagojevich first moved ahead on the rate increase but later ordered a deputy governor to hold back on it when fundraising from Magoon was not forthcoming. Blagojevich was captured on a call talking to his aide and suggesting "budget concerns" were holding up the increase. The government, though, contends that Blagojevich was being facetious.
Goldstein had Blagojevich speak to the budget conditions at the time -- the state was struggling to pay its bills. Blagojevich said he used his veto power to amend the budget sent to him that year.
"It was a good relationship," he said. "I was always supportive of Children's Memorial Hospital. Whenever I had a chance to help them, I always did."
Likewise, Magoon was a contributor to him, Blagojevich said, and Blagojevich knew him to be helpful to other politicians as well. Blagojevich said he called Magoon himself to tell him more money was coming.
"We found the money and we're going to do the pediatric rate increase," Blagojevich recalled saying.
Prosecutors also contend Blagojevich told Magoon not to tell anyone about the increase until the beginning of 2009 and that he did so to give himself cover to get campaign money out of Magoon.
But Blagojevich testified he was cutting the state budget far and wide and didn't want it to be known that the hospital was getting more money.
"I was very clear to him I was breaking a policy," Blagojevich said. "I didn't want word to get out because I was making an exception."
Blagojevich said he was trying to lay low, in part because he was an easy mark for organizations like Children's Memorial when they wanted state help.
"If they get me, I'm apt to give it to them," he said.
Blago denies pressuring anyone to get Patti a job
1:13 p.m. CDT, May 31, 2011
Early in last summer's trial of Rod Blagojevich, prosecutors complained to Judge James Zagel that the former governor was making faces, gesticulating noticeably and tweeting at the defense table. Zagel told him to cut it out.
Today it was the defense's turn to complain to Zagel, with a Blagojevich lawyer claiming that prosecutors were making faces and holding "animated discussions" in front of jurors that improperly telegraphed the idea that Blagojevich wasn't credible. Prosecutor Reid Schar denied the allegation.
Zagel said he hadn't seen any problems with prosecutors' facial gestures, though he promised to keep an eye out.
Before the lunch break, Blagojevich's testimony turned to his wife, Patti, and allegations leveled by former chief of staff John Harris that Blagojevich had pressured him to help land a job for his wife either in the securities industry or with the state.
During last summer's trial, prosecutors presented considerable evidence concerning Patti Blagojevich, including testimony from several witnesses suggesting that she was paid tens of thousands of dollars in real estate commissions for doing little or no work.
That part of the government case has been downplayed in this trial, but Harris' allegations were repeated. As Harris told it, Patti Blagojevich obtained licenses to work in the securities field, and Blagojevich then ordered Harris to arrange meetings between her and investment specialists about potential jobs.
When those meetings did not produce jobs, Harris said Blagojevich erupted and ordered him to cut the firms off from further state business, something Harris said he didn't and couldn't do.
In his testimony, Blagojevich put an entirely different spin on Harris' claim. Blagojevich said he asked Harris to set up the meetings as a precaution for Patti Blagojevich, so she could get a feel for what kind of job she could get with her new securities license and "didn't stumble into a firm that was getting investments from my administration."
Blagojevich said he asked Harris: "Can you put her in touch with people that know that world and give her advice as to where she can go and can't go?"
The result for his wife, Blagojevich said, was "bubkis" because the advice she got was so many firms did business with the state that that there was nothing she could do that wouldn't be a conflict.
Harris also claimed that Blagojevich once ordered him to try and get Patti a paying job with the Illinois Pollution Control Board. Blagojevich said he did broach the idea with Harris, but only to test his preconceived "instinct" that it would not be proper.
Up until this morning, one thing that hasn't been touched upon by either side in the trial has been the outcome of last summer's case in which jurors deadlocked on 23 corruption counts but convicted Blagojevich of one count of lying to the FBI during a 2005 interview about his knowledge of fundraising activities on his behalf.
But Blagojevich's lawyer, Aaron Goldstein, briefly brought up that conviction before the lunch break, asking Blagojevich to acknowledge it and then asking him who has responsibility for sentencing him in that matter.
"Judge Zagel," Blagojevich answered before Goldstein quickly changed the subject.
Blagojevich disputes roadbuilder's testimony
11:51 a.m. CDT, May 31, 2011
Rod Blagojevich's testimony on the third day in his corruption retrial has turned to yet another of the key charges against him, the allegation by prosecutors that he tried to shake down road building official Gerald Krozel for $500,000 in contributions.
The charge centers on a multi-faceted tollway reconstruction and expansion plan that road builders dearly wanted in 2008 as the economy was sagging and road construction work was tanking as well.
In the fall of 2008, Blagojevich announced a $1.8 billion tollway expansion plan. But Krozel testified earlier in the trial that Blagojevich also dangled the prospect of announcing a much bigger, $5.9 billion expansion as well, though Krozel said he got the clear indication that the governor was delaying it until Krozel came through with money for Blagojevich's campaign fund.
Blagojevich's testimony flatly disputed Krozel's version of events while also raising the clear suggestion that all of Blagojevich's efforts on the tollway should be viewed in the context of his continuing political struggles with political nemesis House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Blagojevich said he met with Krozel on Sept. 18, 2008, at the governor's North Side campaign office and the two discussed both tollway expansion and fundraising help for Blagojevich. But the former governor said he never connected the two and, in fact, made it clear to Krozel that he did not support the broader $5.9 billion tollway expansion plan because it would require tolls to be hiked.
Furthermore, Blagojevich said, approving the bigger plan would undercut his efforts to build political pressure on Madigan to stop blocking a much larger $35 billion bond plan Blagojevich was pushing to pay for an array of capital programs not just in northern Illinois but across the state.
As for the fundraising, Blagojevich said he told Krozel that a campaign contribution "would be very helpful to me and (I) would be appreciative of it" and then merely mentioned to Krozel that a new ethics law pushed by Madigan would severely restrict the governor's ability to raise contributions.
There's a bit of irony in that last explanation, which Blagojevich offered to put a benign spin on his request for money from Krozel. On government wiretaps, Blagojevich was heard unleashing an expletive-laced tirade when he was told that President-elect Barack Obama would be "thankful and appreciative" and offer nothing more in return if Blagojevich would pick a friend of Obama's to be Illinois' new U.S. Senator.
Technical difficulties as Blago back on stand
10:30 a.m. CDT, May 31, 2011
As governor and even as a criminal defendant, it's been all but impossible to silence Rod Blagojevich. Until this morning.
As Blagojevich took the stand, technical troubles with his microphone on the witness stand had Blagojevich's voice cutting in and out. "That’s not my fault," Blagojevich said as U.S. District Judge James Zagel called a temporary halt to the proceedings.
It didn't take long to figure out what the problem was after jurors were sent out of the room.
Blagojevich, who famously had trouble with a computer and texting during his stint on Celebrity Apprentice, had set his binder full of wiretap transcripts on top of the microphones on/off switch causing it to switch on and off when pressure was applied to the binder.
When the trial resumed, Blagojevich declared, "I misspoke, apparently it was my fault."
Speaking of jurors, one of the original panel of 18 regular and alternate jurors appears to be missing this morning and may have been gone on Friday as well. The missing juror was designated as number 125, a computer technician at a junior college. Jurors are not allowed to miss any time during the trial, so it is likely number 125 is off the jury, though Zagel has made no announcement from the bench.
If she is gone, the panel still has five extra members than the 12 that are needed. It is common in long trials like this one for one or more members of a jury panel to drop off for a variety of reasons.