Blagojevich denies wrongdoing in often meandering testimony

May 27, 2011

by City Room and Associated Press

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Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich speaks to the press outside his home in April.
(Getty/File)
Blagojevich arrives at the Dirksen federal court building.
(WBEZ/file)
Blagojevich attorney Sheldon Sorosky in the lobby of the Dirksen federal court building.

Updated at 6:16 p.m.

Ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich told jurors all about his life and blue collar roots while testifying at his corruption retrial in Chicago on Thursday. Blagojevich is expected to return to the stand on Friday morning.

Introducing himself to jurors, he said, "I used to be your governor" and "I'm here today to tell you the truth."

The testimony early in the day was mostly autobiographical. In the afternoon, Blagojevich made specific references to comments made, and schemes alleged, by previous witnesses.

Working class, through and through

Blagojevich started by talking about his upbringing in a working-class Chicago neighborhood. He spoke in a low voice and remembered his first hit in little league baseball. Jurors watched him intently.

Blagojevich described his first jobs as a shoeshine boy and then working in a packing company. He talked about his father leaving home to work on the Alaskan pipeline. Blagojevich said he also worked on the pipeline, washing pots and pans.

Blagojevich's voice broke when he spoke about his deceased parents. He later choked up when he began to tell the story of how he met his wife, Patti. That prompted Judge James Zagel to send the jury out of the room, and call for a lunch break.

College and law school

Earlier, Blagojevich addressed his days as an undergrad at Northwestern University. He told jurors that he often felt inferior compared to other students. But he said he got good grades, and was a history buff.

"I had a man crush on Alexander Hamilton," Blagojevich said.

In talking about Winston Churchill and how leaders made decisions, the ex-governor offered a preview of his defense to the corruption charges he faces, some of which are based off secretly taped phone calls with his aides.

Blagojevich said, like Churchill, he believes in "full discussion," that leaders "should be free" to bounce ideas off advisers, to "end up in the right place."

Later, talking about law school, Blagojevich said he applied to a number of top schools, including Harvard University. The rejection letter, he said, "came back pretty quick." Blagojevich eventually went to Pepperdine University in California. His first year, he said, was "almost catastrophic," because he wanted to read history books instead of law books.

A former friend

Blagojevich attorney Aaron Goldstein asked him about his friendship with Lon Monk. Monk is a former Blagojevich aide who testified against him in exchange for a lighter sentence for himself.

Blagojevich said he met Monk while studying abroad in England during law school, and it developed into "a lifelong, very close friendship."

He talked about how different his upbringing and family were Monk's, whose father was a successful California obstetrician and gynecologist. Blagojevich said he "became very close" with Monk's family. He said they had a "beautiful house...with peacocks in the back yard."

"I love Lon Monk," Blagojevich said of his once-close friend, who he said read the 23rd Psalm at his wedding with Patti. Asked if he trusted Monk, the ex-governor said, "Absolutely. Infinitely."

Monk, earlier in the trail, testified that Blagojevich was present during meetings in which the governor's inner circle discussed ways to make personal money off of state government. On the stand Thursday, Blagojevich said those conversations never occurred.

Fast Eddie

The ex-governor talked about how he worked as a paralegal for Ed Vrdolyak, at the time a lawyer and Chicago alderman.

"I didn't do a lot of law," Blagojevich said, noting that his job consisted of doing campaign work for, among others, then-Mayor Jane Byrne, picking up cheesecakes for the alderman's driver and "deliver[ing] envelopes."

Blagojevich said Vrdolyak later reneged on a promise to hire him, and again on a promise to get him a job with the Cook County State's Attorney's office. He was hired anyway, working in the office while Richard M. Daley was state's attorney.

"While [Daley] was my boss, I never saw him," said Blagojevich. He talked about his work in the traffic division, and later on domestic violence cases.

No doubt in an effort to make sure the jury knew he was not professionally familiar with the laws he is accused of breaking, Blagojevich attorney Aaron Goldstein asked the ex-governor a series of questions about his struggles to pass the bar exam, and his experience in private practice. Blagojevich testified that he never worked on any federal criminal case.

Political start

Blagojevich also testified about his early days in politics and his early days with Patti, stories that are intertwined. He said he met Patty at a fundraiser for her father, Ald. Dick Mell, in 1988. "I fell in love with Patti not long after that," he said, explaining that he bought her a $5,000 engagement ring.

Blagojevich said he was also involved in Mell's precinct organization, working to help elect Daley as mayor in 1989. And when Mell needed a candidate for state representative, he turned to his new son-in-law.

"You interested in running, Blagojevich?" the ex-governor recalled Mell asking him. "You're probably going to lose."

He won, though, and four years later ascended to Congress, reclaiming for Democrats a seat lost by Dan Rostenkowski.

"[Rostenkowski] had some troubles, not unlike me," Blagojevich testified, referring to the federal corruption charges that led to Rostenkowski's defeat, and eventual imprisonment.

Cursing apology

Blagojevich's attorney cited his tendency for profanity. When you hear the curses and swear words, "it makes you wince," Blagojevich said to the jurors. "I'm an F-ing jerk and I apologize."

Once his own attorneys are done questioning him, Blagojevich is sure to face blistering cross-examination from the government. Prosecutors are likely to replay FBI wiretaps that captured his blunt talk.

Jackson story denial

On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., was called to the stand by the defense. Under cross examination by prosecutors, Jackson told a story about how Blagojevich snubbed Jackson's wife, who wanted a job leading the lottery. In a later meeting with the governor, Jackson said, Blagojevich referred to the job, pointed in an Elvis-like way and said, "You should have given me that $25,000."

Blagojevich told jurors Thursday, "I don't remember anything remotely like that." He said he recalls giving the lottery job to a candidate pushed for by Jackson's father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. The former governor talked fondly of a trip he made, as a congressman, with Rev. Jackson, to Serbia to try to free American prisoners.

The Emanuels

Blagojevich also denied attempting to hold up a state grant intended to build an athletic field for a school located in the congressional district of then-U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel. Prosecutors have alleged Blagojevich did just that, while telling staff it was because he wanted Emanuel or his Hollywood agent brother Ari to host a fundraiser for him.

Blagojevich acknowledged that he did try to get the Emanuels to host such a fundraiser, but was told they were too busy helping congressional candidates. Entirely separately, he said, he later asked staff to look into the state grant, because he did not recall authorizing it. But he said he ultimately ordered that the school's construction bills be paid as they came in. Blagojevich said this was because he was "super careful" about taxpayer dollars.

The former governor testified that he never told Emanuel that the state grant was contingent on the fundraising help, a statement backed up by Emanuel in testimony on Wednesday.

Up next

The jury was sent home Thursday at about 4:30 p.m. The Blagojevich trial is usually not in session on Fridays, but Zagel is making an exception this week. Jurors are due back on Friday morning at 9:30, but will only stay until about noon.