With the departure of Oprah Winfrey Wednesday, the hottest ticket in town Thursday became the federal retrial of Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor who took the stand to testify against charges he was involved in schemes to use his former office to enrich his bank account and political future.
Last summer Mr. Blagojevich was convicted on one count of 24 filed against him stemming from what prosecutors described as a pay-to-play scandal involving President Obama’s former US Senate seat. That single conviction, lying to the FBI, carries with it the maximum of five years in prison.
But the jury deadlocked on the rest of the counts, resulting in this second trial, which opened last month.
Beginning with Blagojevich’s arrest at his home in December 2008, the former governor has campaigned for his innocence on any outlet that would have him: prime time television shows, morning drive radio, and public appearances.
He says he is a victim of a political vendetta crafted by his enemies in Springfield, the state capital. His mantra has been a call to have a complete airing of the wiretap recordings taken of his phone conversations in order to show the context to his most inflammatory statements. He also repeatedly has insisted he take the stand to testify, an opportunity that did not come to fruition in the first trial.
His day in court finally came Thursday. His appearance came as a surprise to some court watchers who assumed the reason he did not testify in the first trial was because he could not guarantee keeping in check his propensity for going off topic.
However, Andrew Stoltmann, a Chicago lawyer who is tracking the trial, says one reason Blagojevich’s defense team opted to allow him to speak this time is because of what they learned during the first trial: That all the jurors except one were convinced of his guilt.
“They realized how close Blagojevich came to being convicted and realized they had to take a gamble, roll the dice and hope that [he] can sell the jurors on his innocence,” Mr. Stoltmann said.
To anyone who has followed Blagojevich’s television appearances, the opening day of his testimony followed close to character. Much of the morning testimony was spent on his biography: How he met his wife, the admiration he feels for his father, a Serbian immigrant, his insecurity in attending Northwestern University, the meaning of his Serbian name Milorad, and his love of history.
“I had a man-crush on Alexander Hamilton,” he told jurors.
Much of the testimony appeared designed to tame characterizations made by prosecutors that Blagojevich was a deceitful and arrogant public servant who spared the public interest in favor of his own. On wiretap recordings played in the first and second trials, Blagojevich is heard using a common profane epithet, which he addressed in his testimony Thursday.
“When I hear myself saying that on tape, I’m an effin’ jerk and I apologize. It makes you wince,” he said.
Federal prosecutor Reid Schar complained to US District Judge James Zagel that Blagojevich needed instructions to answer in a way that’s “more focused and responsive to the actual questions.” Judge Zagel responded that the background testimony was appropriate, saying it was “a chance for him to tell his story.”
Stoltmann says allowing Blagojevich to testify using his natural charm is “all part of the strategy because that is [his] primary defense” in helping show the wiretap recordings “are nothing more than the random musings of somebody who thinks out loud.”
“They want to reinforce that image,” he says.
Marcellus McRae, a former federal prosecutor currently in private practice in Los Angeles, says the decision to put Blagojevich on the stand comes with risk.
“At a certain level, the ability to humanize a corporation or a defendant like him certainly has some value and doesn’t hurt. But at the end of the day, it’s not more important than substance and the evidence,” Mr. McRae says. “You do not want to pander.”
Blagojevich’s testimony followed a day of high courtroom drama. On Wednesday, his defense team questioned US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. for 30 minutes, a decision that backfired when Representative Jackson alleged that Blagojevich did not appoint his wife as the head of the Illinois Lottery because Jackson did not deliver a $25,000 campaign contribution.
“In classic Elvis Presley fashion, he snapped his fingers and said, ‘You should have given me that $25,000,’ ” Jackson said.
Outside the court building Wednesday, Blagojevich told reporters that Jackson’s statement was “absurd and completely not true. That never happened.”
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also testified, if only for three minutes, Wednesday. In what became more favorable to Blagojevich, Mayor Emanuel said he was never asked to hold a Hollywood fundraiser for Blagojevich in exchange for state grant money for a school in his district when he was a US congressman representing Chicago’s North Side.
Emanuel also said he was never asked to set up a charitable organization for Blagojevich in order to get Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett appointed to the president’s former Senate seat.