CHICAGO — A former top aide to Rod Blagojevich testified Monday that the former governor planned to hold up a $2 million grant to a school in then-U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel's district until the congressman's Hollywood-agent brother held a fundraiser for him.
Former Illinois Deputy Gov. Bradley Tusk said at Blagojevich's corruption trial that he ignored the governor's directive to deliver the message to Emanuel – because, Tusk told the court, he thought the plan was "both illegal and unethical."
Tusk said he started hearing from Emanuel and his staff in 2006 about the need to quickly get the grant to build a sports field. Tusk said when he talked to Blagojevich, the governor said he wouldn't release the money until Emanuel's brother had the fundraiser.
Afterward, Tusk said he complained to the chief ethics officer in Blagojevich's office.
"I believe I used the phrase, 'You need to get your client under control,'" Tusk said. "He said he would take care of it."
Blagojevich's attorney Sheldon Sorosky appeared to suggest that whatever remarks Blagojevich made were merely heat-of-the-moment comments – something Tusk agreed earlier the governor was prone to.
Nothing in the indictment of Blagojevich suggested that Emanuel – now President Barack Obama's chief of staff – was actually threatened.
Sorosky also pressed Tusk about why he never went to the police, prosecutors or other legal authorities about his concerns.
"You thought this was illegal, right?" Sorosky said, his voice rising.
"Yes," responded Tusk.
"Did you quit your job, right?" Sorosky shot back.
"No," Tusk said.
"Not once after that comment (for a fundraiser) did (Blagojevich) ever say," Sorosky continued, "'Get on the ... phone with Congressman Emanuel – where's my fundraiser?'"
"No," said Tusk, "he did not."
One of the government's star witnesses – Blagojevich's former chief of staff who was arrested the same day as the governor – also took the stand. John Harris, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud and is cooperating with prosecutors in exchange for leniency, told the jury that Blagojevich wanted him to "make sure" two financial institutions did not receive any more state business because he was angry that they had not found Blagojevich's wife a job. Prosecutors say Harris will likely be on the stand for several more days.
Blagojevich, 53, has pleaded not guilty to scheming to sell or trade the U.S. Senate seat Obama gave up following his November 2008 election. He has also pleaded not guilty to plotting to launch a racketeering scheme using the powers of the governor's office.
If convicted, Blagojevich could face up to $6 million in fines and a sentence of 415 years in prison, although he is certain to get much less under federal guidelines.
His brother, Nashville, Tenn., businessman Robert Blagojevich, 54, has pleaded not guilty to taking part in the alleged scheme to sell the Senate seat and to plotting to illegally pressure a racetrack owner for a $100,000 campaign contribution.
The racetrack owner, John Johnston, testified Monday that he was angry after being pressured to make the contribution – by a lobbyist who was supposed to be working for him – apparently in exchange for the governor's signature on a bill that would help the horse-racing industry.
Johnston said the lobbyist, Alonzo Monk, made it clear in a conversation on Dec. 3, 2008, that the governor would sign the bill as soon as Johnston had made the contribution. Blagojevich was arrested six days later, and the contribution was never made. Blagojevich signed the bill a week after his arrest.
Johnston quoted Monk as saying in late 2008: "I spoke to the governor and he's concerned that if he signs the racing legislation, you might not be forthcoming with a contribution."
Johnston testified that he was angry. But he testified, "I would imagine, if I made a contribution, they'd cash the check and he'd sign the bill."
Monk, who was Blagojevich's former chief of staff, testified last week that Blagojevich withheld signing the bill as a way to pressure Johnston for the contribution, as the governor allegedly tried to raise as much money as possible before a new campaign ethics law kicked in Jan. 1. Monk has pleaded guilty to plotting to pressure Johnston for campaign money.
Harris testified that Blagojevich was trying to find his wife Patti a job because his family needed the money – in part because her work as a real estate agent was hurt by the investigation of the governor.
Blagojevich proposed that he appoint his wife to the pollution control board, a post that paid $100,000 a year, but Harris said he was able to dissuade the governor after telling him that board members needed specific qualifications that Patti Blagojevich did not have.
Harris said that after he told Blagojevich that officials with two financial institutions, including Citibank, had not found Patti Blagojevich a job, the governor grew angry, telling Harris to "make sure they didn't get any more state business."
For his part, Blagojevich appeared relaxed and upbeat throughout the day. He smiled a number of times during the testimony and didn't show any signs of being annoyed, even when Tusk was describing him as a disengaged boss who often left important decisions, even which bills should be signed or vetoed, up to him.