Was Rod Blagojevich simply wondering out loud or did his scheming have serious intent?
That is the crux of the arguments that closed his second federal trial Thursday, a do-over following the first that ended in a deadlocked jury on all but one count. Mr. Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor, was convicted last summer on one count of 24 against him that accounted for what prosecutors described as a pay-to-play scandal involving President Obama’s former US Senate seat.
In this trial, federal prosecutors simplified their case against the former governor in order to help the jury see that talking about wrongdoing was still a crime, even though money never exchanged hands and political favors never saw the light of day
In her closing argument, federal prosecutor Carrie Hamilton repeatedly referenced an analogy of a police officer seeking bribes from a motorist but receiving none, making the point that bribery still took place. Throughout the trial, Ms. Hamilton and her team sought to portray Blagojevich as a greedy public official who had contempt for his office and the public it served and who, if he weren’t so bumbling, would have earned the riches he sought.
At the end of her arguments Thursday, Hamilton played a wiretap recording that featured Blagojevich calling Mr. Obama an epithet and asking his aides, in response to learning he would not benefit from appointing the seat to an Obama friend, “I just gotta suck it up for two years and do nothing?”
“That is in [Blagojevich’s] mind … you want something from me for nothing?” Hamilton said.
For the impeached governor’s defense team, the closing argument riffed on a familiar demand: Show me the money.
“Nothing, nothing, nothing” is what defense attorney Aaron Goldstein said Blagojevich received as a result of his alleged schemes.
“Rod didn’t get a dime. I told you [that] you would hear the sound and the fury. In the end you would get nothing,” Mr. Goldstein said. “The man didn’t intend to do anything [the prosecution is] saying. And this is what this case is about.”
One accusation the retrial repeatedly stressed involved Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel who, as a US congressman representing Chicago’s Northwest Side, was allegedly pressured to host a Hollywood fundraiser for Blagojevich in exchange for a state grant he sought for a school in his district. In testifying for the defense earlier in the trial, Mayor Emanuel said he was never approached to host the fundraiser, which never took place.
Goldstein said the fact that the school received the grant and Blagojevich never received a fundraising check was evidence that a dirty deal did not take place.
“The school gets the grant, gets their money, and builds a field. This is a good thing … and Rod never got a fundraiser,” he said.
His defense emphasized that Blagojevich is heard pursuing fundraising dollars because that is the nature of the job, a distinction that separates it from bribery. The argument that the rough-and-tumble world of Illinois politics required Blagojevich to fight hard to get his social programs passed in the state capital, and to keep his fundraising coffers flush for reelection, could make it difficult for jurors to see any wrongdoing.
“This time we’re going to have a real confused jury as to what to do,” says Bill Healy, vice president of the Chicago division of Decision Quest, a jury consultancy. “For juries to convict someone of something, they have to have some level of anger about the person’s actions. But are they actually angry in this case?”
Blagojevich testified for seven days, which will likely be studied for its bizarre ramblings, narcissist asides, comic punchlines, and jabbing vocal volleys between the prosecution and witness. Goldstein, on Thursday, summed up his client accordingly: “He likes to talk.”
“That’s all you heard. [The prosecution wants] you to believe this talk is a crime. It’s not. He floated ideas and that’s all it is,” he said.
That argument was challenged by prosecutors, who stressed ignorance of the law is not a defense. However Mr. Healy says Blagojevich’s performance may sway jurors to deliberate in his favor even if there is seen to be credible evidence against him.
“He made quite an impression in the courtroom. First, it takes a lot of guts to get up there full well knowing you will be cross-examined, and he did it. No one should underestimate the power of persuasion that man has because he was elected to governor twice,” Mr. Healy says.