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Is it important to see Blagojevich go to prison?

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

In September 2001, the notion of Rod Blagojevich as governor of Illinois was little more than a glint in the eye of his father-in-law, the wily Chicago Ald. Dick Mell.

That may seem a tortured tie-in to the big story of the day — the killing of Osama bin Laden — but I see a thread connecting Monday’s start of the Blagojevich retrial.

If nothing else, it’s a reminder that as Public Enemies No. 1 go, Rod Blagojevich never was any Osama bin Laden, even if he did take his turn as such in the national media barrel while bin Laden was hiding out in his man cave and fading into memory.

But it’s also a lesson in how much can change in 10 years and how hard it can be to keep it all in perspective.

In those intervening years, the people of Illinois elected Blagojevich twice as governor, and now the United States government will try for the second time to put him behind bars. There was a time sending him there seemed like the most important thing in the world, just as there was that time in 2001 when it wouldn’t have seemed important at all.

Now we read that the FBI has transformed itself into a domestic counterintelligence agency that is putting more emphasis on uncovering potential threats than solving crimes and wonder where that leaves future prosecutions of government corruption, even as the man who brought the Blagojevich case — U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald — continues to be eyed as a candidate for FBI director, based in part on his own credentials as a terrorist hunter.

Not nearly so much has changed since the first Blagojevich jury concluded its business last year without reaching a verdict on nearly all the counts, judging by the attitudes toward him that were revealed in the jury selection process.

Check that. There’s one very big change. Prosecutors have simplified their case in response to complaints from jurors at the first trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Niewoehner emphasized that simplicity in an opening statement that portrayed Blagojevich as a shakedown artist who tried to leverage the power of his office to reap personal financial benefits and campaign contributions.

“It’s that simple,” he repeated at several junctures, in case anyone had missed the point.

You know all the objects of the alleged shakedowns by now: the vacant Senate seat, the horse racing legislation, the tollway construction plan, money for Children’s Hospital and funding for a North Side school sought by Rahm Emanuel.

Niewoehner conceded that Blagojevich “did not get what he demanded” in any of these instances, but added: “It was not for lack of effort. He tried over and over.”

If they can find a way to bring in the evidence in as coherent a manner as Niewoehner’s opening would suggest, then I’d say prosecutors will be in a much stronger position than they were at the first trial.

Of course, the new simplified prosecution case also allows for a new, more simplified defense, which I hadn’t totally anticipated until Blagojevich attorney Aaron Goldstein made his presentation.

Making up in clarity what he gives up in showmanship to Sam Adam Jr., his predecessor from the first trial, Goldstein hammered away at his theme that the prosecution’s case is a “tale of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

Harkening to Dec. 9, 2008, the day of Blagojevich’s arrest, Goldstein asked: “Do you think they found a bag of cash, a secret bank account? No, they found nothing because there is nothing.”

Prosecutors contend Blagojevich committed a crime simply by making demands on those seeking some official action, regardless of what he actually received.

But you can see where the Goldstein argument might strike a chord with jurors who could reject the prosecution’s case on those grounds, even after being instructed on the law by Judge James Zagel.

“Time after time, you will be left with nothing,” Goldstein said. “You will find yourself wanting more.”

Again, that’s a good read from the first trial. I often found myself wanting more from the prosecution’s case, not that I would ever chalk up Blagojevich’s actions as “nothing.”

Goldstein also indicated a stronger emphasis on going on the offensive against some of the businessmen who were portrayed in the first trial as victims of Blagojevich’s shakedown attempts.

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