On the stand, Rod Blagojevich offers a few barbs and a lot of bluster

Prosecutors on Thursday interrogated former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich for the first time during his retrial on federal charges of corruption. It was a combative hour.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted June 2, 2011 at 8:02 pm EDT

Chicago – They only had a single hour at the end of the day Thursday, but federal prosecutors got the opportunity they’ve been waiting for: a chance to finally interrogate former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich before a jury of his peers.

Mr. Blagojevich is in the throes of a second federal trial in which he is convicted of 17 charges related to allegations that he participated in a pay-to-play scheme for President Obama’s former US Senate seat. A mistrial on all charges except one – Blagojevich was convicted last summer of lying to the FBI – resulted in this bookend trial in which, unlike the first, the former governor is taking a stand.

In his five days of recently concluded testimony conducted by his defense lawyers, Blagojevich was repeatedly reprimanded by US District Judge James Zagel for filibustering in his response to questions, a habit that is considered part of his strategy. On Thursday, for example, Blagojevich testified that he considered appointing himself to the Senate seat so he could hunt down Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

The more Blagojevich wanders off point and the more his outlandish statements and jokey asides keep multiplying, the easier it will become to show that the alleged scheming heard on wiretap recordings had no intentional merit, the thinking goes.

In his defense testimony, Blagojevich outlined what he said was his true intent for Mr. Obama’s Senate seat: that it would go to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the daughter of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, Blagojevich’s chief political nemesis. According to Blagojevich, he wanted to award Ms. Madigan the seat so her father would support his legislative agenda that was deemed unpopular at the time. He added that although he considered up to 34 people for the post, he was just about to make the decision before the day of his arrest.

The prosecution opened in the late afternoon following nearly a full day of testimony conducted by the defense. Assistant US Attorney Reid Schar addressed Blagojevich by asking him, “You are a convicted liar, right? It’s fair to say, within hours of being convicted, you went and lied again.”

Mr. Schar was referring to statements Blagojevich made to the media last summer the day of his conviction. Blagojevich had suggested that the conviction of lying was flawed because the FBI did not record his interview. What Blagojevich neglected to tell reporters, Schar said, was that the FBI offered to record the interview.

Blagojevich retorted: “I don’t recall recording devices or anything like that in that interview.”

The brief back-and-forth between both men was heated and often sarcastic. Schar’s questions did not follow a chronology, instead they appeared to be thrown at Blagojevich to create an imbalance in his answers. He quoted the former governor’s book and tried to show contradictions with previous testimony.

Blagojevich often made attempts to interject, which contributed to an interchange that was chaotic and infused with drama. In response to some questions that involved the wiretap recordings, he asked to see a transcript to verify his statements.

Early in the testimony, Schar quoted a recording in which Blagojevich is heard saying he would make a decision on the seat based on what was good for Illinois citizens “and good for me.”

“Your oath, sir, doesn’t say you can make a decision based on what’s good for you, does it?” Schar asked.

The prosecution picks up its case Monday following a three-day break this weekend. With the jury exited from the room, Judge Zagel asked Schar how long he expected his cross-examination to continue.

Based on the previous hour, Schar said, he expects it will go on until “the leaves will start turning.”

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