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Harder to declare Blagojevich a liar when he looks you in the eye

Updated: September 3, 2011 12:33AM

After the Rod Blagojevich trial recessed Friday for the long holiday weekend, I went back to the office and pulled up some of the tape recordings of the secret wiretaps played previously by prosecutors.

My goal was to make a more concerted effort to consider what was being said on the tapes from Blagojevich’s point of view.

I can’t say I came away with any different impression than I always had, no particular surprise given my tendency to side with the prosecution on these matters. But it did occur to me that at least I now am starting to have a better understanding of Blagojevich’s version of events.

More importantly, so will the jurors when they eventually begin their deliberations on the corruption charges against him.

That’s the big plus for Blagojevich in taking the witness stand this past week in his own defense. Before voting to convict him, jurors will have to discount his story. Until now, we could only speculate on what he was thinking. As anybody knows, it’s not as easy to declare somebody a liar if he sits right there and looks you in the eye when he says it.

The issue in court Friday was the former governor’s alleged shakedown of racetrack owner John Johnston by pressuring him to make good on an earlier commitment for $100,000 in campaign contributions, which came at the same time Blagojevich was dangling his approval of legislation to give the racetracks a cut of casino profits.

The evidence has shown the racetracks wanted their legislation signed, and Blagojevich wanted his campaign money — and neither was in any hurry to make the first move, suspicious of the other’s intentions. Blagojevich used his good friend and former chief of staff Lon Monk, by then a lobbyist for Johnston’s tracks, to help put the squeeze on the tracks for the money, all the while reassuring them that one had nothing to do with the other.

Blagojevich seemed to believe that as long as he never explicitly conditioned his actions on a donation, then he was legally in the clear — the too cute by half approach that got him in trouble on several fronts.

Blagojevich testified Friday that one really did have nothing to do with the other. He said he always intended to sign the racetrack legislation and was delaying in part while his staff made sure there was no trick language in the bill that would cause unforeseen problems.

Then he added a new reason, explaining that he feared his old fund-raising pal Christopher Kelly, by then under federal indictment, was involved with the racetracks and had some stake in seeing the legislation approved.

Blagojevich said he was basing this belief on a surprise hour-plus phone call from Kelly on Thanksgiving evening 2008 after not hearing from him for 10 months. That’s a tape I’m sure everybody would love to hear, but unfortunately, it wasn’t played in court. During that conversation, Blagojevich said Kelly told him about a farfetched plan to win a presidential pardon from George Bush through the intervention of former NFL star Bernie Kosar, a friend of the president’s brother, Jeb.

Blagojevich said that over the ensuing weekend he came up with a theory he found more plausible — that Kelly, who eventually committed suicide, was going to have the Johnston family work with the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, their business partner, to get him the pardon as a reward for getting them their share of the casino money.

Yeah, it sounds pretty paranoid, but as we now know, everybody really was out to get Blagojevich by that time.

This would help explain why Blagojevich is heard obsessing on one of the tapes that he believed Kelly was holding up the campaign donations from the Johnstons.

Actually, that was one of the wiretapped conversations Blagojevich tried to explain away Friday, the same notorious call in which Monk recommends he phone Johnston the next day to reassure him he intended to sign the racetrack bill while suggesting to the governor that “it would be better from a pressure point of view.”

On the tape, Blagojevich tells Monk he’s happy to do it. In court, he never got around to explaining what he thought Monk meant by a “pressure point of view.”

But Blagojevich said he never did make the call because he reconsidered and didn’t want Johnston to “feel any pressure from me.”

Prosecutors have suggested another explanation for his change of heart: The next day brought a newspaper report that the FBI had been secretly taping him.

By testifying in his own defense, Blagojevich has taken a big step toward getting the jury to see the case from his point of view, but he still has to square that with a “pressure point of view.”

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