Blagojevich Grilled By Prosecutor About Lying To FBI Conviction
CHICAGO -- A prosecutor who waited years to grill Rod Blagojevich on a witness stand struck hard and fast Thursday when he finally got his chance.
"Mr. Blagojevich, you are a convicted liar, correct?" lead prosecutor Reid Schar asked, raising his voice as he stepped up and delivered his first question to the ousted Illinois governor.
"Yes," Blagojevich answered, after the judge overruled a flurry of objections from defense lawyers.
Within minutes, tempers on all sides flared – a seemingly chaotic scene where Blagojevich's lawyers repeatedly objected and Schar appealed for the judge to direct Blagojevich to answer the question.
Schar rocked back on his heels and pointed angrily as he hurled one question after another at Blagojevich, who tried to hold his ground and also looked angry.
"Is it true that, as a politician, you not infrequently lied to the public?" Schar asked.
"I try to be as truthful as possible," Blagojevich responded firmly.
Jurors who had started to sag in their seats as Blagojevich was questioned by his own attorney for a fifth day snapped to attention during cross-examination. During the most heated exchanges of questions, objections, rulings and answers, jurors' heads whipped back and forth as they looked from Schar to defense attorneys to the judge to Blagojevich.
The tall, shaven-headed lead prosecutor has a reputation as a serious-minded, sometimes steely workhorse who shuns showmanship and bluster – but that was far from the case Thursday.
Schar, who has spent years working on the Blagojevich case, seemed to relish the chance to finally confront him, pacing back and forth during questioning and stepping ever closer to the witness stand. At the first trial last year – in which Blagojevich was convicted of lying to the FBI – the ousted governor never took the stand and so prosecutors never had a chance at cross-examination.
Blagojevich seemed to welcome the fight and answered some of Schar's questions despite his lawyers' objections, leading defense attorney Aaron Goldstein to once yell over him, "Objection, Rod."
During the previous questions from Goldstein, Blagojevich denied all the allegations against him, including that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.
He faces 20 criminal counts this time, including attempted extortion, conspiracy to commit bribery and wire fraud. In his first trial last year, a hung jury agreed on just the one count of lying to the FBI.
Prosecutors got only an hour's worth of questions in before the judge adjourned until Monday. Schar said the government would likely have at least another day of questions for Blagojevich, but added that it could be longer if the contentious back-and-forth persisted.
"If it continues like this, the leaves will start turning" color in fall, Schar said.
Schar asked the former governor about convicted political fixer and longtime Blagojevich fundraiser Tony Rezko – described by prosecutors as a dark force who pulled strings behind the scenes during Blagojevich's time as governor.
The prosecutor asked Blagojevich if he feared in 2008 that Rezko, who also was once a fundraiser for Obama, might be cooperating with federal investigators.
"I was concerned about published reports ... that you were trying to make Mr. Rezko lie about me and President Obama," Blagojevich shot back.
In questioning by his own attorney earlier Thursday, Blagojevich insisted he wasn't asking for a Cabinet post in exchange for naming a preferred candidate to Obama's seat. He said he kept broaching the subject because he was embarrassed by the reaction of Obama ally and union leader Tom Balanoff to his idea of asking Obama to make him secretary of health and human services.
"I think it goes to one of my insecurities," Blagojevich said, explaining why he went on talking about a possible Cabinet post for days more. "I was embarrassed by the flat-out dismissal. You sure look bad in front of your staff."
Blagojevich told jurors that his talk about the seat and the possibility of getting a Cabinet post was just "manic brainstorming." But he said he understood right away it was pure fantasy and couldn't happen.
"It's like, if I could play center field for the Cubs, I would do that, too," he said.
Blagojevich kept hammering on the theme that his comments about the seat were mostly wild talk. As if to prove the point, he said he once even entertained the notion of appointing himself to the Senate seat so he could go Afghanistan and join the search for Osama bin Laden.
Blagojevich also kept working in comments about continuously seeking legal advice as he contemplated whom to appoint.
"Any decision on the Senate seat had to be legal, obviously," Blagojevich said at one point. Prosecutors objected and Judge James Zagel stopped him.
Zagel had warned Blagojevich earlier not to say he thought his actions were legal at the time, saying that was not relevant to whether he committed a crime.