Blagojevich prosecutors focus quickly on Senate allegation
Prosecutors in the corruption retrial of Rod Blagojevich focused quickly Tuesday on the most serious and sensational allegation that the former Illinois governor tried to sell or trade an appointment to U.S. President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat. At Blagojevich's first trial last year, the government didn't delve into that accusation until weeks into testimony. They jumped into it this time on their first day of presenting evidence, calling a onetime Blagojevich confidant who claims the two discussed how the governor could leverage the appointment into campaign cash or a top job. Former Blagojevich chief of staff John Harris described to jurors matter-of-factly how Blagojevich talked about the Senate seat in in October 2008, asking Harris in one conversation, "What do you think I can get for this?" The government's initial witnesses in the first trial were a series of experts and little-known players in the investigation, many of whom spoke about intricate financial transactions that many jurors later complained were difficult to understand. But with Harris on the stand, prosecutors played for jurors excerpts from FBI wiretap recordings, in which a sometimes giddy, frequently foul-mouthed Blagojevich is heard talking about how he might benefit personally from naming someone to Obama's seat. In recordings made around the time of the 2008 presidential election, Blagojevich is heard mentioning Obama's friend, Valerie Jarrett, and wondering if he could become the U.S. secretary of health and human services or an ambassador, in exchange for naming Jarrett to the seat. "So, I'm the governor of a $58 billion corporation," he tells Harris, likening Illinois to a company he'd run for six years. "Why can't I be ambassador to India?" Blagojevich brings up the possibility of being ambassador to Germany, England, France or Canada. He also talks about landing a job in the private sector or with a nonprofit foundation, possibly with the Obama administration's help; Blagojevich and Harris toss around names like the Kaiser Foundation and the Red Cross. Blagojevich later balks at appointing someone Obama favors without getting anything in return. "Do they think I would appoint Valerie Jarrett for nothing just to make him happy?" he says. The FBI recordings are at the heart of the government's evidence on nearly all the 20 counts Blagojevich faces. References to them earlier in the day by one of Blagojevich's lawyers prompted Judge James Zagel to admonish the defense. Blagojevich's attorney Lauren Kaeseberg repeatedly tried to ask the government's first witness, FBI agent Dan Cain, how many hours of wiretap recordings exist. Zagel had already ruled that Blagojevich's lawyers could not try to suggest to jurors that prosecutors were hiding evidence by withholding hundreds of hours of recordings that, if played, would clear their client an accusation Kaeseberg was clearly attempting to hint at. "Asking those questions was inappropriate," Zagel told defense attorneys, standing up from his chair after he asked jurors to leave the room. "I don't want to be sustaining objections to stuff I clearly already ruled on. . . . Don't do it in front of the jury." Reid Schar, the government's lead attorney, objected each time before Kaeseberg could finish the question, but complained to Zagel that it made them look bad in jurors' eyes. Defense attorneys do sometimes try to work in arguments that judges had earlier prohibited, but it wasn't clear if the retrial jurors heard enough of Kaeseberg's question to understand what she was trying to do. Zagel, known as a no-nonsense judge, told Blagojevich's attorneys at pre-trial hearings that he would keep a tighter leash on them, and his rebuke seemed to illustrate that. Blagojevich, 54, has denied any wrongdoing. His first trial ended with jurors deadlocked on all but one count. They convicted him of lying to the FBI. Cain, the first witness, described how FBI agents listened to Blagojevich's phone conversations before he was arrested on Dec. 9, 2008. Harris was arrested the same day but agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.