Blagojevich denies he used state action to force donations

May 31, 2011

by City Room and the Associated Press

Download Story
Former Governor Rod Blagojevich (AP file)

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, testifying for a third day at his federal corruption trial, disputed prosecution claims that he tried to leverage state action for campaign donations.

Race track bill

Guided by his attorney, Aaron Goldstein, Blagojevich provided his defense to government charges that he tried to get campaign donations in 2008 by withholding his signature from a bill that would benefit the horse race track industry.

Prosecutors had played secretly-taped conversations between Blagojevich and his former chief of staff, Lon Monk, who was working as a lobbyist for the industry. The government alleges Blagojevich and Monk were trying to squeeze money from the racetrack-owning Johnston family in exchange for signing the legislation.

In his testimony Tuesday, Blagojevich said he had a couple reasons - entirely legal ones - for withholding his signature on the bill. First, he said he wanted to consider the legislation as part of his broader plan to use his amendatory veto power, what he called his “Rewrite to do right campaign.”

Second, Blagojevich said he was nervous that he would sign the bill around the same time that a campaign donation from the Johnstons would arrive. He said he believed the donation was “imminent” based on his conversations with Monk, and didn’t want there to be a perception that he signed the bill because of the money. He noted he'd been "stung" by a similar allegation in the past.

Tollway construction

Also Tuesday, Blagojevich addressed accusations that he tried to shake down road construction bigwig Gerald Krozel, by holding back approval for a major tollway project. The ex-governor, in his testimony, sought to provide another reason for his reluctance to move forward with expansion: that he was trying to get the legislature to approve with a much larger statewide construction plan, known as the capital bill.

The defense played a  secretly recorded conversation between Blagojevich and his chief of staff at the time, John Harris. In it, they talked about a request from then-DuPage County Board Chair Bob Schillerstrom to include a western access road to O’Hare Airport in the tollway plan. Blagojevich scoffed at the request, as he wanted Schillerstrom to use his political heft to pressure House Speaker Mike Madigan to call for a vote on the larger capital bill.

That recording included several expletives from Blagojevich, which the ex-governor addressed on the stand.

"You had to pick one of me swearing, eh?” he asked his attorney. Then, to the jury, “I’m sorry again about that language.”

The former governor also discussed a meeting he had with Krozel at his campaign offices. Krozel testified that at this meeting he felt Blagojevich was linking campaign donations and the expanded tollway plan, which would provide obvious benefits to Krozel's industry.

Blagojevich acknowledged both topics came up at the meeting. He said he talked to Krozel about a new ethics law, which restricted political donations from state contractors beginning on January 1, 2009.

“The good news for you and bad news for me is you can’t contribute money to me anymore,” Blagojevich recalled telling Krozel. “This is your last hurrah.”

Blagojevich denied threatening or demanding that Krozel fundraise for him. He said the construction executive told him he wanted to help.

Blagojevich’s team has yet to address the most headline-grabbing allegations against their client. He is accused of trying to personally profit from his power to fill the U.S. Senate seat that President Barack Obama vacated in late 2008.

Children's hospital

Blagojevich testifed Tuesday that “whenever a baseball manager calls me…I call them back.” Such was the case when former Cubs manager Dusty Baker called Blagojevich in 2008 to ask him to help out Children's Memorial Hospital. The hospital's executive ended up asking Blagojevich to push through a Medicaid reimbursement rate increase for pediatricians.

Budget times were tight, but Blagojevich said he agreed. The governor said he told his deputy governor, Bob Greenlee, to get it done. He said Greenlee eventually told him he'd found the money to make it happen, effective after January 1, 2009.

Prosecutors allege Blagojevich was trying to get fundraising help from Patrick Magoon, and actually ordered the rate increase be put on hold when Magoon resisted. Blagojevich dismissed that claim, noting that he thought the rate increase was set. “My state of mind was it was done," he testified.

Blagojevich says the hospital was "a personal place" for him because a cousin died there in the 1960s.

Blagojevich's chattiness

During the former governor's first day on the stand at his corruption retrial, Judge James Zagel let Blagojevich tell rambling stories about his childhood and interests.

But now that testimony has turned to allegations against him, Zagel, prosecutors and even his own attorney are trying to rein him in.

Defense attorney Aaron Goldstein is cutting Blagojevich off when answers get too long, and prosecutors objected nearly 40 times Tuesday. Zagel says he understands Blagojevich's penchant for long stories because he has "the same bad habit."

A sheepish Blagojevich responded to the judge, "Can I say great minds think alike?"

Zagel raised his eyebrows as he settled back into his chair.

Blagojevich’s binder blunder

Shortly after Blagojevich began testifying Tuesday morning, the judge halted the proceedings and sent the jury out of the room because the ex-governor’s microphone kept going on-and-off. Court staff soon discovered the problem: Blagojevich’s binder, containing transcripts of wiretaps, “was resting on the on-and-off switch.”

“You got to watch that binder, Rod,” Goldstein told his client after the jury returned.

“Evidently it was my fault,” replied Blagojevich.

Past conviction

Blagojevich has denied all wrongdoing since his arrest on December 9, 2008. Less than two months later, he was impeached and removed from office by the Illinois General Assembly. Since then, he’s waged a very public campaign, declaring his innocence at every turn. He hosted a radio show on a local station, appeared in Celebrity Apprentice and acted as a pitchman for pistachios.

Blagojevich faces 20 federal charges, including wire fraud, attempted extortion, conspiracy to commit extortion, bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery. This is the ex-governor’s second trial, after a different jury last summer deadlocked on all but one count. It found him guilty of lying to federal investigators, a charge that carries a maximum of 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Goldstein briefly asked Blagojevich about that conviction on Tuesday. The ex-governor acknowledged he was found guilty, and said Judge James Zagel is responsible for sentencing him. Goldstein then told Blagojevich he would move on to another subject, to which the defendant replied, "Please do."

Making faces

When the jury was out of the courtroom on a break, Blagojevich attorney Lauren Kaesberg told Judge Zagel that she has witnessed prosecutors making faces and engaging in "animated discussion" that jurors were noticing.

Prosecutor Reid Schar denied this, and Zagel said he had not noticed it.

The government made a similar complaint about Blagojevich during the first trial.

There were only 17 jurors listening to testimony today, down one from the standard of 18. It is not uncommon for one or two jurors to withdraw during a trial. It can sometime happen for health or personal reasons.

WBEZ's Andrew Gill, Sam Hudzik and Robert Wildeboer contributed to this report.