Union leader testifies on Senate talk in Blagojevich trial
Prosecutors at Rod Blagojevich's retrial called a union leader Monday to address allegations that the ousted Illinois governor sought to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat, maintaining their focus on the most serious charge against him.
Tom Balanoff, a top official in the Service Employees International Union and a close ally of Obama's, took stand after defense attorneys finished cross-examining the government's first major witness, former Blagojevich chief of staff John Harris. Most of Harris' testimony also concerned the Senate allegation.
Balanoff told jurors Obama had called him the day before the November 2008 presidential election to say he wanted his friend Valerie Jarrett as a White House adviser -- but that she wanted to be a senator.
After the election, Balanoff said he tried to convince Blagojevich to name Jarrett to the seat. But he said he was taken aback when Blagojevich suggested he would like to become U.S. health and human services secretary.
"I said, 'That's not going to happen'," Balanoff said he told Blagojevich. Later, Balanoff told Jarrett that Blagojevich had said "some goofy stuff," referring to his interest in a Cabinet post.
During cross examination, Blagojevich attorney Aaron Goldstein pressed Balanoff about whether Blagojevich ever asked specifically for the Cabinet post in exchange for naming Jarrett to the Senate seat.
"Those were not his specific words," Balanoff said. "But I felt that's what he was implying."
Obama, Balanoff and Jarrett have not been accused of any wrongdoing in the case.
Blagojevich, 54, faces 20 charges at the retrial, all of them underpinned by FBI wiretap evidence. He denies any wrongdoing. Blagojevich's initial trial ended last year with jurors deadlocked on all but one charge. They convicted him of lying to the FBI.
At the first trial, prosecutors didn't delve into the Senate seat allegation until weeks into their presentation of evidence. But they jumped into in on day one of testimony last week by putting Harris on the stand.
Defense attorney Aaron Goldstein peppered Harris about his honesty and what he would say to knock time off his own prison sentence.
At one point, he noted that Harris had spoken to federal authorities dozens of times since he and Blagojevich were arrested on Dec. 9, 2008. But without offering specifics, Goldstein accused Harris of lying from the start.
"One of the first things you did was lie to them?" Goldstein asked Harris.
Under cross-examination, Harris acknowledged that he lied to the FBI shortly after he and Blagojevich were arrested and that he had reached an agreement with federal prosecutors that called for them to recommend a shorter prison sentence if he testified truthfully. Harris, 49, conceded that only the prosecutors and not Goldstein would determine whether Harris had told the truth on the witness stand. He could get a sentence as short as half of the maximum sentence of 87 months in prison.
During the several hours in which he grilled Harris, Goldstein attempted to introduce arguments through his questions, drawing more than 150 objections from prosecutors -- nearly all of which were sustained by Judge James Zagel.
"I don't want an argument disguised as a question," the judge admonished Goldstein at one point.
At times, the prosecutors objected to question after question from Goldstein, who several times tried to build on the contention he made in his opening statement that Blagojevich wasn't conspiring to do anything criminal, but was just talking.
Goldstein alluded to that argument when he began to ask about FBI wiretap recordings of Harris and Blagojevich allegedly talking about Obama's vacated Senate seat.
"Is it fair to say most of this was just shooting the breeze about politics?" he asked Harris, prompting a prosecutor to object.