It was a ruse; a savvy strategic political ploy engineered by a man whose own defense attorney insists has "horrible" judgment.
That's how Rod Blagojevich's defense lawyer Tuesday explained the former governor's courting of Jesse Jackson Jr. in November, 2008, as a possible replacement to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Obama.
Blagojevich is charged with trying to sell the seat to the highest bidder and prosecutors say he tried to extort Jackson to raise a $1 million for his campaign war chest in exchange for the appointment.
But during opening statements in the federal corruption trial of Blagojevich and his brother, Robert Blagojevich, defense attorney Sam Adam, Jr., insisted that the former governor was simply trying to get the attention of power brokers in Washington by floating Jackson's name. And the brothers never asked for money, Adam insisted.
"The big shots in Washington . . . they wanted that seat to be democratic in 2010," Adam said. "[Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid called and said send someone but not Jesse Jackson Junior" because the power brokers didn't think he would get elected in 2010.
"It was about making people in Washington D.C. think it was Jesse Jackson Jr. so they'd come help," Adam said in a fiery presentation to 12 jurors and eight alternates. "It was a strategic play that worked."
As the governor, Rod Blagojevich had the power to fill the senate seat vacancy and considered some 90 potential candidates, Adam Jr. said. His first choice, however, was Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. The reason? He was in a stalemate with her father, the powerful speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, Michael Madigan (D-Chicago). Perhaps if he appointed Lisa Madigan, Blagojevich would gain Michael Madigan's support for his legislative agenda.
Adam said that Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, agreed to "be the go between" and help Blagojevich win support for the appointment of Lisa Madigan.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Hamilton painted a starkly different portrait of Blagojevich's conduct and motives. The election of Obama was "a golden moment" for Blagojevich, Hamilton told the jurors during her opening statement.
Blagojevich was broke and had $200,000 in credit card and home equity debt in the fall of 2008.
His power to appoint a successor to Obama was a "golden ticket" and an "answer to his career problems and his financial problems."
He considered appointing Valerie B. Jarrett, now a senior advisor and to the president, in exchange for being named head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Hamilton said. Another idea he had was to be given a job heading some sort of organization that would be funded with millions of dollars, she said. He wanted a job that paid well.
Then he considered appointing Jesse Jackson Jr., but sent word that he wanted Jackson to raise $1 million for his campaign fund, Friends of Blagojevich.
"You are going to hear for yourselves how that corruption was unfolding as it was unfolding," Hamilton said, referring to government wiretaps that allegedly captured Blagojevich in conversations scheming to use his office as a means to personal financial gain. "You will hear him speak in vivid terms" that "this [the power to appoint a senator] is golden" and he is not giving it up for nothing.
And his quest for financial gain was not limited to the senate appointment, Hamilton said as she outlined for the jury numerous instances in which Blagojevich is alleged to have attempted to "shake down" people seeking to do business with the state.
"He corrupted the office of governor of the state of Illinois for his own benefit," Hamilton said. "Rather than asking what about the people I represent he was asking what about me?"
"What about me?"
That was Hamilton's refrain throughout her opening statement as she methodically illustrated instances in which Blagojevich and his "inner circle," which included convicted businessman Tony Rezko, his former chief of staff Alonzo Monk, his attorney John Harris and fund raiser Stuart Levine, attempted to use the governor's office for personal financial gain. Among the examples:
• The state had borrowed $10 billion and Blagojevich sent Rezko to the investment firm that would be handling the funds, asking for a $500,000 kickback that Rezko would hold on to until Blagojevich was no longer governor, and he and his associates would split the fee, Hamilton said.
• Rezko paid Blagojevich's wife $150,000 through his real estate business between 2003 and 2004 even though Patti Blagojevich had done no work, Hamilton said. In May, 2004, when the FBI approached Levine, who has since been convicted, for an interview, the payments to Patti Blagojevich suddenly stopped, Hamilton said.
• Levine, who once served on the state pension board, and Blagojevich arranged for kickbacks from firms who were investing the pension funds, Hamilton said.
• In May 2005, during an FBI interview, Blagojevich allegedly lied when he told agents "that he tried to maintain a firewall between politics and government" and that he did not pay attention to who was contributing to his campaign fund. "These statements couldn't be further from the truth," Hamilton said.
• In 2006, when Emanuel sought a $2 million grant for a Chicago school for teachers, Blagojevich sent an intermediary to Emanuel asking him to hold a fundraiser for his campaign fund. Emanuel did not agree, so the money was sent to the school in slow trickles, Hamilton said.
• In 2008, he turned to his brother to help him raise campaign cash before a new ethics law limiting contributions from certain state contractors was to be enacted on January 1, 2009.
• In 2008, Blagojevich approved $1.8 billion for the Illinois Toll Highway Authority and sent word to people who work in road construction that there was plenty more where that came from if they hold fundraisers for him, Hamilton said. Blagojevich was seeking $500,000, she said.
• In November of 2008, after signing a bill that would help the horse racing industry, Blagojevich sent Monk to try to shake down a horse race track owner of $100,000, Hamilton said.
• In the fall of 2008, Blagojevich allegedly tried to shake down an executive of Children's Memorial Hospital when the hospital sought $10 million in state funds to help pay its doctors, Hamilton said.
• And also in the fall of 2008, when there was a movement to impeach him, Blagojevich directed his attorney Harris to call the Chicago Tribune and offer them help in selling the Chicago Cubs in exchange for something: "He directed Harris to shake down the Tribune but not for money," Hamilton explained. "[Harris was] to try to get them to fire the writers that were writing editorials critical of him."
"Blagojevich wanted to know 'what about me?' and his answer was a 25K campaign contribution," Hamilton said. "The message was 'pay up or no action.' Those words were not used but it was still a shakedown."
In all, Blagojevich is charged with more than two dozen crimes, including extortion, conspiracy, wire fraud and making false statements when he was questioned by the FBI. All but the false statement charge carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
The trial is set to resume Wednesday with the prosecution presenting its first two witnesses - an FBI agent and Monk, who entered a plea deal with the government and is a cooperating witness.
Janan Hanna is a licensed attorney, a lecturer at Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism and a freelance writer.
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