Rod Blagojevich found guilty on 17 counts. Is it a turning point for Illinois?

In a retrial, Rod Blagojevich is convicted of corruption stemming from the sale of President Obama's seat in the US Senate. The former Illinois governor says he's 'stunned.'

By , Staff writer

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    In this courtroom sketch, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich sits before Federal Judge James Zagel as a court clerk reads the verdict in his corruption retrial in Chicago, Monday. Blagojevich was convicted by a jury of 17 of the 20 charges against him, including all 11 charges related to his attempt to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat.
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A federal jury convicted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich of corruption stemming from the sale of President Obama’s Senate seat, finding him guilty Monday of 17 of the 20 counts against him.

The verdict concluded a second federal trial that made the national spotlight for its moments of high drama and comic absurdity.

Outside the federal court building in downtown Chicago Monday afternoon, Mr. Blagojevich said he was “stunned” at the verdict.

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“There's not much left to say other than we want to get home to our little girls and talk to them and explain things to them and try to sort things out,” he said.

Among the convictions of wire fraud, attempted extortion, bribery, the conspiracy to commit extortion and the conspiracy to commit bribery, 11 had to do with the sale of the US Senate seat held by Mr. Obama prior to his election as president in 2008.

The jury deadlocked on two counts of attempted extortion involving the solicitation of a construction executive. Blagojevich was found not guilty on a bribery count involving the same case.

Jurors took 10 days to reach the verdict, which is four days less than in the first trial last summer, which resulted in a hung jury on all but one charge: lying to the FBI. The slightly trimmed response time is likely due to the nature of the prosecution’s case, which involved fewer charges and a redesigned strategy that emphasized that even though Blagojevich may not have benefited from the scheming heard on wiretapped recordings, his actions constituted wrongdoing.

Federal prosecutors “really pounded, from the opening to the rebuttal summation, that words can be enough” to convict, says Patrick Cotter, a former US prosecutor who is in private practice in Chicago. “In light of this verdict, it was a really good move.”

The case also confirmed that successful verdicts for the defense are always more difficult to win in a retrial than the first, says Barry Pollack, a defense attorney specializing in white collar crime in Washington. In the Blagojevich case, the first trial “became, effectively, a dress rehearsal for the government to see what worked for them and what did not work for them,” says Mr. Pollack.

Blagojevich was arrested outside his home in December 2008. Ever since that time he campaigned aggressively to make the case he was being targeted by state Democrats who did not favor his public service initiatives. His public relations efforts quickly groomed a celebrity, presumably to shore up money for his mounting legal bills, and also to create a public face that contradicted the brash, and often foul-mouthed, political operative heard behind closed doors on FBI wiretaps.

The celebrity makeover helped generate the views locally that the second trial was a costly mistake for a state suffering from a $15 billion budget deficit and that Blagojevich was guilty of nothing other than being just another Illinois politician suffering from a monumental case of ego. Monday’s verdict is likely to reverse that opinion, says Shari Seidman Diamond, a law professor at Northwestern University in Chicago.

“People talked about the retrial wasting taxpayer money and I’m curious to see if that persists in the light of this verdict,” she says.

The second trial, like the first, exposed the tribal nature of Chicago and Illinois state politics. On wiretapped recordings, Blagojevich was heard trying to both ingratiate himself with state and federal lawmakers and also lashing out against them. In testimony on the stand, Blagojevich apologized to jurors for his language and appeared to portray himself as a humble public servant whose schemes were aimed at appeasing his political enemies.

In his testimony, Blagojevich outlined what he said was his true intent for Obama’s Senate seat: that it would go to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the daughter of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, Blagojevich’s chief political nemesis. According to Blagojevich, he wanted to award Ms. Madigan the seat so her father would support his legislative agenda that was deemed unpopular at the time.

Reform advocates say that Blagojevich’s strategy in showing that horse-trading is just part of the political culture here is insufficient and Monday’s verdict should impact others who are conditioned to pay-for-play politics.

“The message that needs to be delivered to voters, to candidates, and to people that work for candidates [is] that corruption … is not business as usual. All these people who say ‘I was just doing what everybody was doing’ should go to jail,” says David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a nonprofit public interest group in Chicago. “I am always hopeful that this is the one [trial] that will sink in and convince people to stop.”

Blagojevich is the second Illinois governor in a row convicted of corruption. Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan currently sits in federal prison serving a 6 1/2-year sentence.

US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who led the case against Blagojevich, referenced the Ryan case Monday to reporters, saying it should have been a signal that public tolerance for corrupt officials had eroded. Blagojevich “did not get that message,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.

Although Illinois political history is thick with sordid tales of graft and other wrongdoing, the Blagojevich case will likely be perceived as a turning point that will make public officials think twice before cutting deals without thinking the public is watching, says David Hoffman, a former Chicago Inspector General.

Mounting public resentment and digital media advancements are collectively getting the edge over public officials who may believe their illicit actions may have no consequences nor may see the light of day, says Mr. Hoffman.

“For too long, there has been this myth that we in Illinois are so beaten down by the state’s history of corruption that people are tolerant of public officials who act in a very blatant way to advance their private interests,” he says. “Anyone who has grown up with the Internet knows that it makes no sense to believe that government will not become transparent over time. It will make it harder for officials to engage in widespread corruption schemes. Combine that with public anger with these types of cases and I’m actually optimistic that [the Blagojevich case] is something that will not be forgotten.”

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