Attorneys offer competing portraits of Blagojevich
CHICAGO (AP) – Two portraits of Illinois’ disgraced former governor emerged Tuesday from his corruption trial: An insecure bumbler who talked too much and a greedy, smart political schemer determined to use his power to enrich himself.
The contrasting images were offered by a prosecutor and a defense attorney as they finished closing arguments and prepared to hand the case over to the jury, which was scheduled to begin deliberating Rod Blagojevich’s fate Tuesday after hearing seven weeks of evidence.
Defense attorney Sam Adam Jr. described his client as naive and a poor judge of character – but not a criminal. He dismissed prosecution claims that Blagojevich tried to sell or trade the nomination to Barack Obama’s former Senate seat.
Adam told jurors they knew the truth after listening to hours of FBI wiretap tapes played by prosecutors.
“You heard the tapes, and you heard Rod on the tapes,” he said. “You can infer what was in Rod’s mind on the tapes. You can infer from those tapes whether he’s trying to extort the president of the United States. We heard tape after tape of just talking.”
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar took those same words and told the jury to listen to both what the governor said and what he didn’t say. Blagojevich, he insisted, knew how to ask for a bribe in a way that the person on the other end of the phone understood exactly.
“He knows how to communicate, that is what he does for a living,” Schar said. “He’s good at it.”
Dismissing the idea that others led him into the schemes, he asked, “Somehow he is the accidentally corrupt governor?”
Adam – pacing, sweating and alternately shouting and whispering to the jury – acknowledged to jurors as he began that he did not call Blagojevich to testify, as he had promised when the trial started, because the government did not prove its case.
“I thought he’d sit right up here,” Adam shouted, walking over to the witness stand and pointing at the empty chair. “I promised he’d testify. We were wrong. Blame me.”
“I had no idea that in two-and-a-half months of trial that they’d prove nothing. … They want you, you and you to convict him” with no evidence, he yelled, moving along the jury box and pointing to individual jurors.
Instead, he portrayed Blagojevich as a victim of overzealous prosecutors.
Adam had wanted to name potential witnesses that prosecutors didn’t call to testify, even threatening Monday to risk jail by doing it after Judge James B. Zagel forbid it.
Zagel rejected the idea of incarcerating him at the beginning of the proceedings, but still warned him not to name the witnesses, saying he would be held in contempt of court. Adam never crossed that line but did find a way to work in references to Obama, presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
The prosecution objected more than 20 times to Adam’s statements, all of which were sustained by the judge.
Blagojevich, 53, has pleaded not guilty to 24 counts, including trying to sell or trade an appointment to Obama’s vacated Senate seat for a Cabinet post, private job or campaign cash. His brother, Nashville, Tenn., businessman Robert Blagojevich, 54, has also pleaded not guilty to taking part in that alleged scheme.
Adam dismissed prosecution allegations that the former governor considered naming Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. to Obama’s old seat, after a businessman offered to raise millions for Blagojevich.
Adam said Blagojevich was trying to float the idea that he would appoint Jackson to Obama’s old seat to get more leverage with state House speaker Mike Madigan. That way, if Blagojevich decided to appoint Madigan’s daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the elder Madigan would be more willing to help on health care legislation.
“That man wasn’t selling any Senate seat,” Adam said. “You know what he was doing, ladies and gentleman … he was trying to get 300,000 people health care, make sure a capital bill was passed” and other efforts.
Adam also said prosecutors never presented evidence that anyone who was allegedly targeted by Blagojevich for a shakedown conducted fundraising.
“Tell me one state contract tied to fundraising?” he asked. “Did they bring one state contract based on fundraising? Just one? No.”
Adam said that a big reason why Blagojevich is on trial is that he is a bad judge of character.
“He’s got absolute horrible judgment on people. And that’s this case and they want you to find him guilty of these horrible crimes because of that,” he said.
Adam told jurors that some of Blagojevich’s ideas were, as the former governor himself said outside court last week, stupid.
“He even talked about Oprah Winfrey” to replace Obama in the Senate, Adam said. “These are ideas that nobody’s going to say he’s the sharpest knife in the drawer. But he’s not a crook.”
In its rebuttal, the prosecution said Blagojevich is not the bumbling, naive victim portrayed by defense attorneys. Schar told jurors Blagojevich is a smart man and experienced politician who knows better than to explicitly ask for money or other favors.
Schar said the people who testified understood that Blagojevich was threatening funding for their various projects if they did not pony up campaign contributions.
“It was obvious,” he said. “Somehow Mr. Adam would say to you the master communicator here didn’t get it.”
Shar, who did not raise his voice throughout his argument, did, as he wound down, display emotion for the first time, pausing, rubbing his face and looked down on the floor before he raised his head and gave what were the final words the jury would hear from attorneys.
“I don’t know how you begin to put a price on the damage defendant Blagojevich has caused,” he said. “The time for accountability for the defendants is now.”