Blagojevich Not So Corrupt?
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One of the themes prosecutors repeated at trial is that Blagojevich was a desperately greedy man, a concept crystalized in the now infamous "f***ing golden" line. When Barack Obama won the presidency, Blagojevich saw his ability to appoint a replacement to the Senate as a chance to get something for himself. He was willing to appoint whoever Obama wanted, but in return, he wanted Obama to appoint him to something. Here he is on the phone with his wife Patti talking about maybe trying to named ambassador to India.
ROD BLAGOJEVICH: What does it pay?
PATTI BLAGOJEVICH: I don't think it pays very much but then I think you've got a house there, right?
ROD BLAGOJEVICH: You know ambassador to Canada is another one.
PATTI BLAGOJEVICH: Yeah, Canada's important.
ROD BLAGOJEVICH: Major trading partner with America and Illinois.
They also talk about Blagojevich heading up a political organizing group. One of Patti Blagojevich's first questions is how much the job would pay. She searches online for the salaries of current employees while he muses.
ROD BLAGOJEVICH: I'd like a four year contract for a million a year or something. Or 750 or whatever. It would have to be good.
Prosecutors hope that conversations like that will color the way jurors interpret other conversations in which Blagojevich's intent may not be so obvious. For example, the so called "Children's Memorial" scheme. Blagojevich called the CEO of Children's Memorial to tell him that the state was increasing certain reimbursement rates that would net the hospital about 10 million dollars a year. A few days later, Blagojevich's brother Robert called the CEO and asked him to hold a fundraiser. He followed up a few times in the coming weeks but Robert told his brother that the CEO never called him back.
ROBERT BLAGOJEVICH: I've left three messages there so I'm gonna quit calling. I feel stupid now.
ROD BLAGOJEVICH: When's the last phone call.
ROBERT BLAGOJEVICH: Two days ago.
A few hours later, Blagojevich talks to his deputy governor about the rate increase that would benefit the hospital.
ROD BLAGOJEVICH: We could pull it back if we needed to, budgetary concerns right?
GREENLEE: We sure could, yep.
ROD BLAGOJEVICH: Okay, that's good to know.
Blagojevich never flat out demanded a contribution, but prosecutors say this series of calls, when viewed as a whole, shows Blagojevich was trying to extort campaign contributions from the CEO of the hospital. The Blagojevich team argued that the rate increase was implemented and then the governor asked for contributions from a constituency that would likely want to support him.
KELNER: It is very common for members of congress and other public officials to solicit campaign contributions shortly after a meeting with somebody about a legislative matter.
Rob Kelner chairs the election and political law practice at a Washington D.C. Law firm. He advises political parties, candidates, and lobbyists. He says there's a lot of gray area when it comes to laws governing political fundraising which means there might be a lot of questionable fundraising practices but as a nation we err on the side of caution because political contributions are considered free speech.
KELNER: In many different areas of First Amendment law, we allow things to take place that are maybe a little close to the line, a little edgy, a little icky-feeling, but we allow them anyway.
Kelner says public officials have to raise money, and they tend to do that from people who want something from them. He says most politicians know enough to not bring up legislative matters in a conversation where they're asking for a political contribution.
KELNER: What's happened here is that the governor went a couple of steps further and really spelled things out more explicitly than sophisticated politicians typically do.
WILDEBOER: It's just a matter of sophistication?
KELNER: Yeah, some of this is just a question of being more flagrant, or being more explicit about things that other politicians with a little more finesse would avoid spelling out.
GROSS: When someone writes a $5,000 check, they're looking for something in return. Maybe just to develop a relationship, just to keep the guy on their right side, but you know, there's something going on there.
Ken Gross is the former head of enforcement for the federal election commission.
He says there's a way for politicians to "soft pedal" while they're raising funds so that they can't be prosecuted. For a political contribution to be a bribe, Gross says there needs to be an explicit quid pro quo, where the politician says, "I'll do x if you give me y."
But Blagojevich was careful not to do that, right? Take the hospital example: Blagojevich never told the Children's hospital CEO that he wouldn't get his rate increase unless he made a contribution. In fact prosecutors repeatedly said that Blagojevich operated in winks and nods.
GROSS: The jury goes back in the room and they go okay, we kinda know something was fishy in Denmark, but is it a crime? Did it ripen to the point where it becomes a crime and this man goes to jail?
To be a bribe, a contribution needs that clear quid pro quo. The reason is so that people who are giving contributions in good faith and exercising their right to free speech aren't afraid they'll be prosecuted.
But Gross clarifies that an explicit quid pro quo doesn't need to be as explicit as you might think.
GROSS: I'm not saying that it has to be a blood oath, and where that line is drawn, if there was a clear understanding by both parties even though it wasn't written out in so many words, the case could be made.
The most explicit allegation in the Blagojevich case is probably the offer from supporters of Jesse Jackson, Jr. Who promised to raise $1.5 million if Blagojevich appointed Jackson to the Senate. Jurors heard a call between the Blagojevich brothers in which Rod says he's seriously considering Jackson but he seems concerned that the promised support might not materialize once Jackson is appointed.
ROD BLAGOJEVICH: Some of this stuffs got to start happening now.
ROBERT BLAGOJEVICH: Yep.
ROD BLAGOJEVICH: Right now and we got to see it.
ROBERT BLAGOJEVICH: Okay.
ROD BLAGOJEVICH: You understand? Now you got to be careful how you express that and assume everybody's listening. The whole world's listening you hear me?
ROBERT BLAGOJEVICH: Right, right right.
ROD BLAGOJEVICH: But if there's tangible political support like you've said, start showing us now.
Prosecutors told jurors to remember this call and Blagojevich's desperate greed when they're trying to figure out if the former governor crossed the often fuzzy line between fundraising and bribery.