Retrial for Rod Blagojevich: Will anyone be watching?

The retrial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich opens Wednesday in federal court. In the first trial, the jury deadlocked on 23 of 24 charges related to the handling of President Obama’s former US Senate seat.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor
posted April 20, 2011 at 11:48 am EDT

Chicago – Call it “Blagojevich Trial, the Sequel.” The retrial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich opens Wednesday in federal court, as he again faces charges related to allegedly trying to sell President Obama’s former US Senate seat for political favors and money.

This time, the charges will be fewer, the prosecution more streamlined, the defense team less flamboyant, and, perhaps most noteworthy, the Illinois public less focused on what happens to the impeached ex-governor.

Mr. Blagojevich denies he is guilty of all charges and insists he is a victim of zealous prosecutors who are doing the bidding of his political enemies in Springfield, the state capital. His vindication, he says, lies with FBI wiretap recordings that, if aired in their entirety, will provide context to the snippets that are to be heard in court. However, those recordings remain under seal by US District Judge James Zagel, who presided over the first Blagojevich trial and will do so again.

The first trial, last summer, featured many dramatic moments inside and outside the courtroom. Blagojevich, since his arrest in December 2008, had pursued a celebrity makeover that generated red-carpet treatment on both coasts. In the end, the jury deadlocked on 23 of the 24 charges, forcing Judge Zagel to declare a mistrial. Blagojevich was convicted on a single charge of lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In the months since, Blagojevich has maintained a low profile, seen only occasionally on solitary jogs through his neighborhood.

But as the retrial has approached, Blagojevich’s star wattage has amped up again. In recent weeks, he has appeared on local television and radio shows to make his case. But since his first trial ended, the public appetite for entertaining disgraced politicians appears to have waned, as the political culture in Illinois and Chicago has shifted.

Last fall, Illinois voters chose as governor Pat Quinn (D), the former lieutenant governor under Blagojevich. Although Mr. Quinn’s opponents sought to link him to the impeached ex-governor, he emphasized transparency and reform, and his victory has been widely perceived as transformative. Since then, he and the state legislature have grappled with a huge budget deficit and underfunded pension liabilities, with lawmakers in January approving an income-tax increase of more than 45 percent.

“The public’s patience may have worn thin on Blagojevich,” says Steve Rhodes, publisher of The Beachwood Reporter, an online site that examines Chicago media and politics. “I don’t know if [Blagojevich is] much of a late-night comedy joke anymore. I think people may just want him to go away. We have much more serious things to worry about all of a sudden.”

Another big change is that Rahm Emanuel, the former Obama chief of staff, will be sworn in as Chicago mayor on May 16. Mayor-elect Emanuel and Blagojevich were once political allies. Emanuel’s name came up often in Blagojevich’s first trial, both in the wiretap recordings between the Blagojevich and various aides and during witness testimony.

Blagojevich says Emanuel agreed to be a “go-between” to help broker a deal in which Blagojevich would appoint state Attorney General Lisa Madigan to the vacant US Senate seat and, in return, her father, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, would push through a public-works bill, which Blagojevich says he favored because it would generate 500,000 new jobs and would prevent the need for income-tax increases. Blagojevich insists that his intentions were upright and that he was targeted to protect other involved parties.

“They arrested me to stop that [deal]. If that’s not true, why do they keep blocking the release of that evidence?” Blagojevich asked during a television interview that aired Sunday on a local Fox affiliate.

FBI recordings that aired during the first trial indicated that Blagojevich considered Emanuel to be a conduit through which to test names for the Senate seat, but none of the evidence showed that Emanuel had acted to help Blagojevich better himself. Emanuel has declined to talk about Blagojevich. However, last fall, he told the Chicago Tribune that he “didn’t entertain any … kind of quid pro quo.”

Even if Emanuel is called to testify in the retrial, his political career will survive, says William Grimshaw, a political analyst with the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

“It would be more of an embarrassment. And Emanuel is more of a pro [than Blagojevich] and has enough support [that] it would not be a lasting embarrassment,” says Mr. Grimshaw.

Prosecutors have streamlined their case to make it more concise for a new jury. Three counts have been dismissed, along with the charges leveled against Rob Blagojevich, the ex-governor’s brother, who was part of the original indictment. But a more succinct case may be harder to make because much of the prosecution’s argument depends upon witness testimony and the interpretation of certain recordings, instead of a single smoking gun.

Still, creating a “cleaner and clearer presentation” is essential, considering the organizational problems that the first round of jurors said they experienced – such as having to wade through complicated instructions and not having the original indictment immediately at their disposal, says Shari Seidman Diamond, a law professor and jury expert at the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago.

Prosecutors “had the opportunity, as of course has the defense, to hear jurors in the first trial, and there were clear signals there needed to be some changes,” Ms. Seidman Diamond says.

The tone of the retrial is likely to be different from the first, as a result of a new slate of lawyers for Blagojevich. Gone are Sam Adam Sr. and Jr., the father-and-son team known as Chicago’s most theatrical legal duo. Government attorneys are now handling Blagojevich’s defense. Mr. Rhodes of The Beachwood Reporter describes the new team as “very humble and soft-spoken,” which ultimately means “you’re not going to get the dramatics and flair” that marked the first trial.

A key defense tactic is likely to involve the argument that a drawn-out legal process costs taxpayers money – a message intended to resonate with the jury as Illinois confronts massive deficits and is scrambling to cut spending.

Talking up the cost of trying the case might be a “pretty persuasive argument” for jurors who may be jeopardizing their own jobs to serve for weeks on end, says Jack Moran, a veteran defense attorney in Chicago.

“A lot of people in Chicago feel this is a total money loser – that [Blagojevich’s] legal career is over, his political life is over, so what … else does [the government] need?” says Mr. Moran. “There’s a strong feeling in Chicago that ‘you got [Blagojevich] on [one count]; isn’t that good enough?’ That’s a very powerful thing in Chicago.”

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