A prosecution witness painted a portrait of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich as someone who rarely went to the office, was oftentimes hard to reach and who sometimes took no part in deciding whether legislation should be signed or vetoed.
That task was often left to then Deputy Gov. Bradley Tusk, who testified Monday at Blagojevich's federal corruption trial. But Tusk, a powerful political operative who served as deputy governor during Blagojevich's first term, testified about one occasion where he was able to reach the governor and did not like what heard coming out of his boss's mouth.
Tusk was inquiring about a $2 million grant that had been approved for a school and teaching academy in former Congressman Rahm Emanuel's district. The school, counting on the grant money, had begun building an athletic field but was unable to pay contractors because it had not been given the approved funds. Emanuel and others began pressuring Tusk who called Blagojevich late in the summer of 2006 to talk about the grant.
"He [Blagojevich] said before the money could be released he wanted Rahm's brother to hold a fundraiser," Tusk testified. Emanuel's brother is Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel, who Jeremy Piven's character in the hit HBO show "Entourage" is based on.
Tusk said he believed Blagojevich was saying there would be no grant if there was no fundraiser and that Blagojevich wanted "that message delivered to Rahm Emanuel."
"I believed that doing that [asking Emanuel's brother to hold a fundraiser] would be both illegal and unethical," Tusk testified.
Tusk refused deliver the message and instead called Blagojevich aide John Wyma and the governor's general counsel and chief ethics advisor, William J. Quinlan, to warn them of Blagojevich's request and advise them not to let him carry out his fundraising request in relation to the school grant. To Quinlan in particular, Tusk said: "You need to get your client under control."
Ultimately, the funds were doled out, under Blagojevich's directive, in dribs and drabs, as invoices from contractors doing work on the field were presented, according to the testimony of Blagojevich's former chief of staff, John Harris, who also testified Monday.
Both Tusk and Harris testified that the payment procedure was unusual and that typically grants of that size were doled out in a lump sum.
"...I did not experience that process again" with regards to grants, Harris testified.
Tusk, 36, now a private political consultant living in New York, worked as a special assistant to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg before coming to Chicago in 2003 to be Blagojevich's deputy governor in charge of budgetary, legislative, communications and policy issues. He also headed Bloomberg's 2009 reelection campaign.
Tusk was one of the few prosecution witnesses so far who was not indicted for any criminal wrongdoing and was not testifying in exchange for a plea agreement. Tusk testified that the $2 million grant to the Academy For Urban School Leadership, 3400 N. Austin Ave., was considered a small grant by state standards.
The school grant issue was the latest in a series of allegations by the prosecution that Blagojevich was allegedly in a frenzy to raise campaign cash and that he allegedly conspired with aids and fundraisers to extort or attempt to extort individuals and entities seeking to do business with the state.
Later Monday, testimony from Harris related to Blagojevich's efforts to get a job for his wife, Patti Blagojevich.
Harris was arrested along with Blagojevich on Dec. 9, 2008 and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to solicit a bribe. He also agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors and testify against Blagojevich.
He testified that Blagojevich asked Harris in 2008 to inquire about getting Patti a state job. Ultimately, Blagojevich suggested to Harris that he try to get her a job with an investment firm that does business with the state because Patti had passed the Series 7 exam, which qualified her to trade in securities.
Harris testified that he set up meetings with an executive at Citibank and with John Rogers, the chairman and chief executive officer of Ariel Capital Management, but that neither offered her a job. This angered Blagojevich, Harris testified.
"He was quite agitated that Patti was not having any success," Harris testified. "He told me to make sure Citibank doesn't get any more state work and make sure John Rogers doesn't get any more state work."
This wasn't possible with regards to Rogers since his firm invested state pension funds, which was within the purview of the state pension board. "He shrugged his shoulders and said 'There's nothing we can do?' And I said there's nothing we can do," Harris testified.
The direct examination of Harris is expected to continue throughout the week, prosecutors told Judge James Zagel.
Janan Hanna is a licensed attorney, a lecturer at Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism and a freelance writer.
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