Congressman Jackson, Mayor Emanuel take the stand (briefly) in Blagojevich trial

May 25, 2011

(Getty/FrankPolich)
Rod Blagojevich makes his way into federal court to resume his corruption re-trial May 25, 2011 in Chicago.

Updated at 1:47 p.m.

U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Mayor Rahm Emanuel testified today that they were never approached with any quid pro quo offer by ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The two Chicago Democrats were called by Blagojevich's lawyers as the first defense witnesses.

Jackson talked of his "public campaign - as public as possible" to win appointment to the U.S. Senate in late 2008. That seat was being vacated by President Barack Obama, and Blagojevich alone had the power to fill that seat. The bulk of the government's case against the ex-governor involves his alleged attempts to profit - politically and personally - from that power.

Asked by Blagojevich attorney Aaron Goldstein if he ever offered to provide Blagojevich with campaign contributions in exchange for the Senate appointment, or if he ever directed his supporters to do so, Jackson replied to both questions, "No, sir. I did not."

Jackson said later he has "never directed anyone to raise money for another politician in my life other than myself ever in 16 years [in Congress]."

Before jurors entered the courtroom this morning, prosecutors argued to Judge James Zagel that the bulk of the testimony from Jackson and Emanuel would be irrelevant.

"[It's] not clear to me what the purposes of these witnesses are," Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar told Zagel, noting that the government has never alleged that Emanuel or Jackson were aware of quid pro quo offers involving Blagojevich.

Zagel ruled that most questions planned by the defense were admissible.

Later, prosecutor Christopher Niewoehner took full advantage of his chance to cross-exam Jackson. He had Jackson describe a 2002 conversation he had with then-U.S. Rep. Bill Lipinski, a Democrat from the city's Southwest Side. Jackson said Lipinski wanted him to contribute $25,000 to Blagojevich's initial campaign for governor.

Niewoehner asked: Did you give the money?

"No chance," Jackson said.

The congressman then described a later conversation he had with Blagojevich, after the governor snubbed Jackson's wife, now-Ald. Sandi Jackson, who was seeking a state job.

"The governor came up to me and said, 'I'm sorry that the thing with Sandi didn't work out,'" Jackson recalled. "As he was departing the room, in classic Elvis Presley fashion, he snapped his fingers and said, 'You should've given me that twenty-five-thousand dollars.'"

Prosecutors have alleged Blagojevich traded campaign contributions in exchange for appointments to state jobs - deals they said were brokered by the governor's convicted political ally, Tony Rezko.

The second defense witness was Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. As the incoming White House chief of staff in late 2008, Emanuel had multiple conversations with Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, about the Senate vacancy. According to Harris, Emanuel first lobbied for Obama friend Valerie Jarrett to get the nod, and later presented a list of candidates the president found suitable.

Emanuel has also been identified as the intended target of another scheme, alleged to take place in 2006. Then-U.S. Rep. Emanuel was trying to get a state grant for a school in his congressional district. Prosecutors have said that Blagojevich - for some time - refused to release that money unless Emanuel or his brother, a Hollywood agent, would hold a fundraiser for him.

"Did anyone ever say to you [that] you could receive that grant [if] you or your brother would have to do a fundraiser for Governor Blagojevich?" asked Blagojevich attorney Sheldon Sorosky.

"No," Emanuel replied.

Emanuel similarly denied any knowledge of Blagojevich's plan, discussed on secretly taped phone calls, to get White House help winning a job at a non-profit in exchange for appointing a Senate candidate preferred by President Obama.

Prosecutors had no questions for Emanuel. He was off the stand within minutes.

Neither Emanuel nor Jackson stopped in the courthouse lobby after their testimony to talk with reporters, but a lawyer claiming to represent Jackson released a statement this afternoon.

"As you can imagine, I have many strong feelings about this entire matter,” the congressman is quoted as saying. “My strongest feeling, however, is respect for our judicial system. Therefore, I will have no further comment about the case or how it has affected me until there is a verdict."