The prosecution has begun an aggressive cross-examination of Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich at the ousted Illinois governor's corruption retrial.
Prosecutor Reid Schar asked Blagojevich if he was a convicted liar. Blagojevich answered yes. The courtroom quickly decended into mayhem and confusion as Schar as pointed questions requiring yes and no answers and Blagojevich gave long-winded responses. Schar would repeat his questions over Blagojevich's answers and over top of all of that were several of Blagojevich's attorneys shouting "Objection!"
Blagojevich steamrolled over his attorneys objections leading defense attorney Aaron Goldstein to raise an objection and as the governor continued speaking Goldstein said, "Objection Rod!" As Blagojevich steamrolled over another question he turned to his lawyers and asked, "Why are you objecting to me? Judge James Zagel told Blagojevich that he would have ruled in his favor had the governor not talked over him. And Zagel told defense attorneys that he'll consider Blagojevich's answers to be a waivers of the objections.
Prosecutors likely relished the chance to grill Blagojevich. At his first trial last year - in which he was convicted of lying to the FBI - the ousted governor never took the stand and prosecutors never had a chance to cross-examine him.
During five days of questions from his own attorney, Blagojevich denied all the allegations against him, including that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.
Earlier, Blagojevich tried to carefully explain conversations he had with his advisers in late 2008 about various ways he could leverage his power to appoint a U.S. senator.
The conversations were secretly recorded by the FBI, and the jury in Blagojevich’s federal corruption trial has already heard them.
At one point, Blagojevich is heard talking with members of his inner circle about his desire to be appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services by President Barack Obama.
“If [HHS] was available to me, I could [appoint Obama friend] Valerie Jarrett in a heartbeat,” Blagojevich said on the call.
Asked on Thursday morning by his attorney, Aaron Goldstein, to explain that statement, Blagojevich analogized it to saying, “If I could play center field for the Cubs, I would do that in a heartbeat, too.”
Blagojevich testified he understood the cabinet appointment was not going to happen. He said that’s because, in part, one of his friends and closest political supporters, the SEIU’s Tom Balanoff, told him it was not a possibility.
Why, then, was Blagojevich still talking about the idea on wiretapped conversations with his advisers?
“It goes to one of my insecurities,” he explained. “I was embarrassed by the flat out dismissal of the idea by [Balanoff].”
The ex-governor testified that he was “trying to not look too irrelevant to my staff.”
Guided by Goldstein, Blagojevich reiterated that no actual deal was offered involving the cabinet job and a Jarrett appointment. He explained that no decision had been made.
Labor union gig
The testimony then moved on to another alleged scheme, that Blagojevich would appoint Jarrett if Obama was able to arrange for the governor to become a national coordinator for the labor advocacy group “Change to Win.”
Blagojevich testified that such a job would put him in a position to “have my cake and eat it too.” He said it would allow him to make money to help his family’s finances, while being involved in an issue important to him, and allow for a possible – though admittedly unlikely – political comeback.
But once again, Blagojevich told jurors he wasn’t sold on the idea and didn’t try to make it happen.
“I never decided to do it,” Blagojevich testified. “I ultimately didn’t like the idea.”
Non-profit advocacy leader
Instead, Blagojevich said he started to focus on another idea he found “more appealing.” He wanted to land a leading role at what would be a new non-profit that would advocate for children’s healthcare.
At this point in his testimony, Blagojevich tried to further an underlying theme to his defense: that he was influenced by the words and assistance of his advisers.
Regarding the non-profit idea, Blagojevich said he talked to his top government lawyer, Bill Quinlan, “constantly and continuously” about how to form such a group.
Judge James Zagel has barred Blagojevich from employing an “advice of counsel” defense to the charges he faces. But he is allowed to state that informal advice from his staff contributed to his “state of mind.” Blagojevich insists he was acting “in good faith.”
Getting to Rahm
On one of the wiretapped phone calls, Blagojevich is heard chatting with his former aide, Doug Scofield, about the non-profit idea. They were trying to figure out the best way to get a message to then-U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, to see if he’d be willing to approach some big Obama donors to provide start-up cash for the advocacy group.
The ex-governor said he was being clear to Scofield that he didn’t want there to be any commitments made to Emanuel, who at the time was the incoming White House chief of staff. They planned to ask John Wyma, an insider who was close to both Emanuel and Blagojevich, to be the emissary.
“I didn’t want him to give the wrong impression that I was promising something I hadn’t decided on,” Blagojevich testified, referring, in part, to the U.S. Senate seat.
Blagojevich acknowledged he believed it would be “highly unlikely” for Emanuel to agree to help set up the advocacy group, but added, “Why not see if he’d be willing to help? You never know.”
The ex-governor said he did not make the call personally, because he was “frankly being sensitive to Rahm.”
The message apparently never got to Emanuel, who is now the mayor of Chicago. Testifying last week as a witness for the defense, Emanuel said he was never approached about a potential deal involving the Senate seat, and an advocacy group.
More Emanuel contact
Earlier on Thursday, Blagojevich testified he talked, directly, to Emanuel three times about the Senate appointment.
The ex-governor said he raised the idea of appointing Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to the Senate, in exchange for some sort of possible legislative deal with her father, House Speaker Mike Madigan.
Blagojevich said he believed Emanuel was “pleasantly surprised” that the governor was considering a Madigan appointment.
“[Emanuel’s] a sensible guy and understood the politics as well as the good things that could be done,” Blagojevich said on the stand.
Madigan “mega deal”
Blagojevich testified that “throughout the entire period, [Lisa Madigan] was always on my mind” as a Senate pick.
Blagojevich referred to a possible deal involving the Madigans as the “mega deal.” He said he directed his deputy governor, Bob Greenlee, to prepare a document containing a legislative wish list that could be presented to Speaker Madigan.
“I love that document,” Blagojevich said, noting it included an expansion of state-funded healthcare, passage of a statewide construction bill, and a written promise from Madigan that he would seek no sales or income tax increases.
“I couldn’t get any of it done without Michael Madigan unless I found creative ways around him,” Blagojevich testified. “But we needed him to do this.”
Describing other items on the document, including climate change and poverty reduction initiatives, Blagojevich was warned by Judge James Zagel to read the list “without your campaign speech.”
And he would have help making the deal, Blagojevich said. The governor said he had conversations about it with a number of U.S. Senate Democrats, including Nevada's Harry Reid, Illinois' Dick Durbin and New Jersey's Robert Menendez. He said they wanted Lisa Madigan to be appointed, and it was his hope that – should he choose to go through with the deal – “they would be the ones to broker [and] negotiate” it.
Blagojevich has yet to be cross-examined by prosecutors. But they are likely to point out, as they often have, that there was, in fact, no Madigan “deal,” because the Madigans were not approached about it.
The former governor and his attorney tried to stay one step ahead of that argument. Blagojevich testified he was trying to “line up everyone I could [in support of the deal] before [making] the ask.”
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