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Rod Blagojevich defense: advisers gave him bum advice

When defense lawyers begin their part of the trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich this week, they'll attempt to show that his ex-lawyers didn't steer him away from wrongdoing.

By Staff writer / July 13, 2010

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich arrived at the Dirksen US Courthouse in Chicago June 9. (MCT)

Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Newscom

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Chicago

The trial of embattled former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich shifts to the defense team this week. Federal prosecutors wrapped their case Tuesday after six weeks of putting on evidence in the racketeering and extortion case against Mr. Blagojevich, attempting to portray him as a crass negotiator who inappropriately secured millions for his own campaign and spent lavishly on his wardrobe.

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The defense strategy will not downplay Blagojevich’s actions, but focus on his intent.

His legal team, headed by Sam Adams Sr. and Sam Adams Jr., a well-known father-and-son duo in the city’s county court system, hope to convince jurors that the former governor knew what he was doing but was misguided, due to the poor legal advice from his inner circle.

The strategy was revealed this week in the cross-examination of former Blagojevich attorney Robert Greenlee, who is heard on several wiretaps from late 2008 in discussions with his former boss about trading President Obama’s former US Senate seat for campaign cash.

Prosecutors say Mr. Greenlee felt powerless to tell Blagojevich what he did not want to hear. The defense is using Greenlee’s testimony, among others, to show how an ineffectual legal team sent him down a path of wrongdoing.

A challenging strategy to prove

The strategy is designed to remove willful intent from Blagojevich’s actions, a direction that is “very standard” in mail fraud cases, says Albert Alschuler, who teaches criminal justice at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago.

Mr. Alschuler says a precedent has been established in cases such as those involving tax violations, where defendants have successfully demonstrated that they broke the law without knowing they were doing so because of the complexities of the tax code.

It will be challenging prove in this case. The defense will have to show a direct plan of action that involves the former governor presenting his scheme to sell the Senate seat to his legal team – in full detail – and then being explicitly told his plan of action did not constitute a crime.

The reality of that taking place, Alschuler says, is dim.

“He’s not going to have lawyers who said it’s OK to withhold government benefits until you get a campaign contribution,” Alschuler says. “If any lawyer told Blagojevich everything he did was legal, first, he should be disbarred.”

One flaw to the defense is that Blagojevich himself is a lawyer, which would presumably give him the credentials to assess his situation. But even if he did lean on legal advisers to steer him away from criminal activities, the wiretaps illustrate the people whom Blagojevich had at his disposal may not have been suited for the job.

Advisers lacked moxie

According to Larry Bennett, a political scienctist at DePaul University in Chicago, Blagojevich operated with a coterie of legal advisers who were mostly young, in their late 20s and early 30s, and who lacked the “wisdom or intestinal fortitude to look the governor in the eye and say, ‘Look you can’t do this and when I walk out the door I’m going to resign.’ ”

“What you didn’t have were any senior advisers who could say to him that … what you are doing now is destructive from the standpoint of the state of Illinois and self-destructive from the standpoint of a political future,” Mr. Bennett says. “Certainly [Blagojevich] was operating in an unreal environment and it was partially due to the fact he had bunch of advisers who didn’t push back.”

In the six weeks it took to make their case, federal prosecutors worked back and forth between what Blagojevich is heard saying on tape and courtroom testimony from former advisers who provided context to show his words had meaning. Because the case is based on circumstantial evidence with no single smoking gun, prosecutors were burdened to convince jurors the conviction of the governor’s actions and that he knew he was using his office to break the law.

There may not have been a single standout moment in the prosecutorial side of the trial, but the real fireworks are expected to come with the witness testimonies of such high-profile figures such as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, US Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, and Valerie Jarrett, a top assistant to Mr. Obama. Defense lawyers want to show that Obama’s inner circle aggressively courted Blagojevich to pressure him in his decision-making.

Ronald Allen, a criminal law expert at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, says “it’s a real reality” that the majority of names on the defense team’s witness list will be forced to testify.

“And it will be embarrassing for a lot of them. I think these are serious points,” he says, as the tapes already suggest the officials were in direct conversation with Blagojevich’s advisers.

The former governor faces 24 counts of fraud, conspiracy, bribery, and racketeering, involving alleged attempts to trade official acts as governor in exchange for contributions to his campaign fund. He was arrested in December 2008 at his Chicago home.

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