Does costly Blago retrial deter further corruption?

Posted8/19/2010 12:01 AM

Right after the verdict was read, Rod Blagojevich and his defense team were getting a new message out: Retrying the former governor and congressman would be an obscene waste of tax dollars at a time when "dead babies" are on the streets and police officers are being gunned down.

And surely, many taxpayers wonder at the millions it will cost to go through another trial on 23 of 24 felony counts that the jury could not agree on - especially as corruption often appears to continue unabated in Illinois.


Yet tax watchdogs, reform leaders and legal analysts all said Wednesday that the cost of not retrying Blagojevich would be far more burdensome, both in terms of actual dollars and the impact on Illinois.

One expert says the millions it would cost to retry Blagojevich pales in comparison to the estimated $500 million price tag that corruption takes from Illinois taxpayers each and every year.

"It will be expensive, there will be no doubt about that," Illinois Campaign for Political Reform Director Cynthia Canary said. "But we have no option other than to pursue this. It needs to be made clear to people the jury was deadlocked. He was not acquitted on any charges. My fear is that if we do not pursue this, go forward and say as a state how important this is to us, what's the deterrent (from corruption)?"

The costs of the just-finished trial are not yet tallied. But Blagojevich spent nearly $3 million from his campaign fund alone on his defense, a group of well-heeled attorneys who all took less than the going rate to work on the trial. The U.S. attorney's office could not put a cost on trying the former governor since most of the expense is part of the normal daily cost of running the prosecutor's office.

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Late Tuesday afternoon, the six-man, six-woman federal jury informed Judge James Zagel they were deadlocked on all but one of the counts against Blagojevich and his fundraising brother, Robert. They included wire fraud, bribery, conspiracy and racketeering. Among the grievances, prosecutors charged Blagojevich with attempting to sell the U.S. Senate seat that had belonged to President Barack Obama and withholding state money from a hospital administrator unless he ponied up a campaign contribution.

The only count jurors agreed on was perhaps the most minor: making false statements to the FBI. They found the former governor guilty.

The panel was at an 11-1 impasse on several charges of attempted extortion and bribery, including whether Blagojevich attempted to extort money for making an appointment to the U.S. Senate, jurors said.

Afterward, a curt U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said prosecutors have every intention of retrying Blagojevich, are already preparing for a new trial and would return to court Aug. 26 to set a new date.

By contrast, the defense team's statements were far more theatrical, heavily focused on the cost of a new trial at a time, they said, when the state has other, bigger problems at hand.


"We have police officers being gunned down on the street, children who can't play in front of their homes in the summertime, a prosecutor who has wasted and wants to spend tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money to keep persecuting me," Blagojevich said.

"Why should the people of Illinois, the taxpayers in this county pay me?" attorney Sam Adam Jr. echoed. "Why should, when we have dead babies on the street, when we have police officers in uniform that are day-to-day being shot and targeted by gang members?"

How much a new trial could cost is anybody's guess right now.

Blagojevich is deep in debt, and with his $2.7 million campaign fund zeroed out last week, the burden of a retrial will likely rest on taxpayers for both the prosecution and defense.

Adam Jr. said Tuesday a retrial could cost $25 million to $30 million, an estimate that the U.S. attorney's office declined to back.

A spokesman said Wednesday that while the office "does not maintain or provide the cost of a single prosecution case," it "typically returns more money to the federal treasury each year in the collection of fines, forfeiture and civil judgments than we spend."

No lawyers, court clerks or investigators will get paid extra to retry the case.

The largest expense would be in the cost of court-appointed counsel for the defense.

With Blagojevich pretty much is tapped out of money, lawyers will have to formally request public funding, U.S. District Court Clerk Michael Dobbins said. Blagojevich would have to submit a signed statement of assets, as well as a court determination of eligibility for public funding.

Attorneys would have to work at a flat rate of no more than $110 an hour - the amount given to public defenders, and well below the rate commanded by high-profile lawyers Adam Sr. and Jr. That's the rate that Zagel ordered for Adam Jr. and Sr. in the trial that ended this week. Other attorneys on the defense team received $50 to $75 an hour, defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky recently told Time magazine.

Even if the cost of a retrial is $25 million to $30 million, it would pale in comparison to the Illinois Reform Commission's estimated cost of corruption in the state each year.

In his recently published book, "Challenging the Culture of Corruption" former Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Collins wrote that during Illinois Reform Commission hearings in 2009, the commission heard testimony that estimated the state's corruption tax at $500 million per year.

A 2009 study by Professor Richard Simpson and his University of Illinois Department of Political Science Team, which attempted to quantify the hard costs of corruption, reached a similar result.

The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform's Canary said Blagojevich's well-calculated message ignored the former governor's role in the problems he himself rattled off.

"Hats off to the Adams family. Hats off to them and to Blagojevich. They came out of that verdict with a message aimed straight at the next jury pool: pulling at the heart strings and the budget strings. Dying babies and police officers and millions of dollars of waste. One of the reasons we are in this budget hole we are in is because we had no leadership for six years. ... Rod in a large part is responsible."

And in terms of corruption, she said, "we know we have a problem in this state. We know it didn't go away with Rod Blagojevich, sadly."

Jack Roeser, a Barrington resident who founded the Family Taxpayers Foundation, said the Blagojevich team's talk about the cost of a retrial is "just a concocted story. Should they be retried? Absolutely with the kind of corruption that's been going on in Illinois."

People need to realize, Canary said, "this is not coming out of the Chicago Public Schools' budget. And even more fundamentally, (that they are) allowing Illinois to be that cartoon state of corruption. It costs us when businesses decides to go elsewhere. It costs us when the governor is hiding from the budget director in a bathroom. We'll pay for that until we manage to clean it up."