Blagojevich re-trial: Less flash, fewer allegations and just as many objections
BY NATASHA KORECKI AND LARK TURNER Chicago Sun-Times May 2, 2011 7:02PM
the trial online
Go to blogs.suntimes.com/blago for complete, up-to-the-minute coverage of Rod Blagojevich’s corruption retrial. Also, follow coverage of the trial by Chicago Sun-Times federal courts reporter Natasha Korecki on Twitter, @natashakorecki.
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
It might be called the low-budget sequel.
In opening statements for Rod Blagojevich’s retrial on Monday, the defense dropped the showmanship, and the prosecution significantly slimmed its case, teasing to far simplified allegations against the former governor.
“The governor of Illinois was shaking people down,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Niewoehner told jurors, 15 women and 3 men, including two African Americans. “He was abusing his power as governor to get something for himself, and every time he tried to shake someone down, he violated the trust of the people of Illinois, and he violated the law.”
The remarks before the new jury, which includes six alternates, came 8 ½ months after an August verdict in Blagojevich’s first trial found guilt on just one count and caused a mistrial on 23 others.
The boisterousness and spectacle of defense attorney Sam Adam Jr. was gone this time around, but Blagojevich defense lawyer Aaron Goldstein seemed to have the same knack for toeing the line with Judge James Zagel and prosecutors, notching a slew of objections in his opening remarks.
“This is a tale of sound and fury that signifies nothing.” Goldstein told jurors.
“In the end, do you think they found a bag of cash, do you think they found a secret bank account? They found nothing because there is nothing.”
Goldstein dismissed the Senate seat allegations, saying the tapes will show he considered more than a dozen people – including himself.
“The man was engaged in discussions, and those aren’t crimes,” Goldstein whispered, drawing an objection. “Those are not crimes.”
Niewoehner boiled down allegations to five major shakedown schemes, putting a fine point on the alleged sale of President Obama’s vacant Senate Seat.
“He first tried to shake down Barack Obama. A man who would be president of the United States,” Niewoehner said.
Niewoehner portrayed Blagojevich as desperate for cash; he was personally $200,000 in debt and politically, he was watching his campaign fund, and thus his power, diminished in 2008.
“Sometimes he was as subtle as a freight train,” Niewoehner said, describing an alleged shakedown of a Chicago school. “He just laid it out: personal benefit for state action.”
Having dropped two racketeering counts, the prosecution sliced whole sections of its case in the first trial. They were responding to jurors from that trial who afterward complained the case was too complicated and they were confused. Gone were any references to Patti Blagojevich and her real estate dealings with convicted political donor and businessman Tony Rezko. There was no reference to pay-to-play involving state boards and no talk of a pension bond deal that prosecutors had alleged was corrupt. Nor was there any discussion of an alleged plot involving the Chicago Tribune and its editorial board.
Goldstein though chipped away at the prosecution’s five schemes, saying the so-called “victims” of pay-to-play were actually wealthy insiders who had donated to Blagojevich and other politicians.
Goldstein said the Illinois Legislature took eight months to pass a horseracing bill. It then landed on Blagojevich’s desk, and two weeks later, the government arrested him, he said.
Prosecutors accused Blagojevich of holding up his signature on the bill so he could extract a campaign contribution from racetrack owner Johnny Johnston. Each day he held off, the track did not get $9,000 that would be diverted from casino money, Goldstein said.
“This man is a powerful, influential man,” he said of Johnston. “A victim? Hardly.”
Goldstein did show some flair, proclaiming that ailing children were “cured” because of “Rod,” after the government accused Blagojevich of selfishly shaking down the CEO of the Children’s Memorial Hospital as it sought a rate increase for doctors.
“They told you whether a sick child got healthcare was in his hands,” Goldstein said angrily, his tenor increasing and his arms crossed. “No. Say what you want about Rod, no one cared about healthcare more than that guy right there. Sick children were cured because of him!”
An objection was sustained and Goldstein added: “we’ll see what the evidence is.”