Guilty verdict bitter defeat for Blagojevich
By MICHAEL TARM and KAREN HAWKINS The Associated Press June 27, 2011 11:16PM
Updated: January 23, 2012 2:49AM
Rod Blagojevich, who won two terms as Illinois governor before scandal made him a national punch line, was convicted Monday of a wide range of corruption charges, including trying to sell President Barack Obama’s Senate seat.
The verdict, coming after his first trial ended last year with the jury deadlocked on most charges, was a bitter defeat for Blagojevich, who spent 2½ years professing his innocence on reality TV shows and later on the witness stand. His defense team insisted that hours of FBI wiretap recordings were just the ramblings of a politician who liked to think out loud.
Blagojevich becomes the second straight Illinois governor convicted of corruption. His predecessor, George Ryan, is now serving 6½ years in federal prison.
When sentenced later this year, Blagojevich is virtually certain to get a significant prison term that experts said could be 10 to 15 years.
After hearing the verdict, Blagojevich turned to defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky and asked “What happened?” His wife, Patti, slumped against her brother, then rushed into her husband’s arms.
Before the decision was read, the couple looked flushed, and the former governor blew his wife a kiss across the courtroom, then stood expressionless, with his hands clasped tightly.
The verdict capped a long-running spectacle in which Blagojevich became famous for blurting on a recorded phone call that his ability to appoint Obama’s successor to the Senate was “f---ing golden” and that he wouldn’t let it go “for f---ing nothing.”
The 54-year-old Democrat, who has been free on bond since shortly after his arrest, spoke only briefly with reporters as he left the courthouse, saying he was disappointed and stunned by the verdict.
“Well, among the many lessons I’ve learned from this whole experience is to try to speak a little bit less, so I’m going to keep my remarks kind of short,” Blagojevich said, adding that the couple wanted “to get home to our little girls and talk to them and explain things to them and then try to sort things out.” His two daughters are 8 and 14.
The verdict provided affirmation to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, one of the nation’s most prominent prosecutors, who, after the governor’s arrest, had condemned Blagojevich’s dealings as a “political corruption crime spree.”
The key question for the jury was whether to accept the defense suggestion that Blagojevich’s activities amounted to “the kind of political wheeling and dealing that is common in Illinois and around the country.”
“That,” said Fitzgerald, his voice rising, “couldn’t be any further from the truth. ... Selling a Senate seat, shaking down a children’s hospital and squeezing a person to give money before you sign a bill that benefits them is not a gray area. It’s a crime.”
Fitzgerald also addressed a question that has hung over the case ever since Blagojevich was arrested: Why did authorities not wait until the governor actually made a deal for the Senate seat? Doing so might have helped ensnare other conspirators.
A U.S. Senate seat “should not be put up for sale. You should not let the sale happen. ... Our job is to try to prevent crime, not just prosecute crime,” he said.
Blagojevich was acquitted of soliciting bribes in the alleged shakedown of a road-building executive. The jury deadlocked on two charges of attempted extortion related to that executive and funding for a school.
Judge James Zagel has barred Blagojevich from traveling outside the area without permission. A status hearing to discuss sentencing was set for Aug. 1.
The charges carry a possible sentence up to 300 years in prison, but federal guidelines mean he will serve only a fraction of that.
Judges have enormous discretion in sentencing and can factor in a host of variables, including whether a defendant took the stand and lied. Prosecutors have said that Blagojevich did just that.
Two legal experts speculated that Blagojevich would probably receive around 10 years in prison, with little chance that he would get more than 15.
Former prosecutor Jeff Cramer estimated that Blagojevich would get between six and 12 years. Another former assistant U.S. attorney, Phil Turner, guessed closer to six years.
All 12 jurors — 11 women and one man — spoke to reporters after the verdict, identifying themselves only by juror numbers. Their full names were to be released Tuesday.
Jurors said the evidence that Blagojevich tried to secure a high-paying, high-powered position in exchange for the appointment of Obama’s successor in the Senate was the clearest in the case.
“There was so much more evidence to go on,” said Juror No. 140. Jury members said they listened and re-listened to recordings of Blagojevich’s phone conversations with aides. They also acknowledged finding the former governor likable.
“He was personable,” Juror No. 103 said. “It made it hard to separate what we actively had to do as jurors.”
Still, Juror No. 140 said she found Blagojevich’s testimony over seven days at times “manipulative.”
“Our verdict shows that we didn’t believe it,” she said.
The quiet Blagojevich who left the courthouse Monday was a sharp contrast with the combative politician who emerged after his arrest. Back then, he called federal prosecutors “cowards and liars” and challenged Fitzgerald to face him in court if he was “man enough.”
Over the months that followed, he engaged in what many saw as embarrassing indignities for a former governor. He sent his wife to the jungle for a reality television show, “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here,” where she had to eat a tarantula. He later showed his own ineptitude at simple office skills before being fired on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice.”
To most Illinois residents, he was a reminder of the corruption that has plagued the state for decades.
For the second trial, prosecutors streamlined their case, and attorneys for the former governor put on a defense — highlighted by a chatty Blagojevich taking the witness stand for seven days to portray himself as a big talker but not a criminal.
Richard Kling, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law who watched much of the trial, said the defense had no choice but to put Blagojevich on the stand, even though doing so was risky.
“The problem was with some of his explanations,” Kling said. “It reminded me of a little kid who gets his hand caught in a cookie jar. He says, ‘Mommy I wasn’t taking the cookies. I was just trying to protect them and to count them.’”
Robert Grant, head of the FBI’s Chicago office, said the agency’s eavesdropping helped seal the verdict.
“A famous artist once said that lady justice is blind but she has very sophisticated listening devices, and that was certainly the case in this matter,” Grant said.
Blagojevich seemed to believe he could talk his way out of trouble from the witness stand. He sought to counteract the blunt, greedy man he appeared to be on FBI wiretaps and apologized to jurors for the four-letter words that peppered the recordings.
He said the wiretaps merely displayed his approach to decision-making: to invite a whirlwind of ideas — “good ones, bad ones, stupid ones” — then toss the ill-conceived ones out.
When a prosecutor read wiretap transcripts where Blagojevich seems to speak clearly of trading the Senate seat for a job, Blagojevich told jurors, “I see what I say here, but that’s not what I meant.”
Lead prosecutor Reid Schar started his questioning of Blagojevich with a quick verbal punch: “Mr. Blagojevich, you are a convicted liar, correct?”
After the judge overruled a flurry of defense objections, Blagojevich eventually answered: “Yes.”
Associated Press Writer Don Babwin contributed to this report.