By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
CHICAGO, Sept. 8 -- As former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich (D) sees it while awaiting trial on corruption charges, "the story's upside down." Far from brazenly peddling influence while in office, he swears he was "an honest, hardworking governor for the people."
"Every allegation's a lie," Blagojevich said in a telephone interview Tuesday from New York, where he is promoting his new book, "The Governor." "What ever happened to the presumption of innocence?"
Federal prosecutors, reinforced by testimony from former Blagojevich insiders and hours of secretly recorded FBI audiotapes, intend to prove next year that the two-term governor shook down businessmen and pressured enemies in a "public corruption crime spree."
Blagojevich is facing 16 felony counts, including racketeering, extortion and fraud. According to the indictment, even before he took office in January 2003 on an anti-corruption platform, he was scheming with friends such as developer Antoin "Tony" Rezko to make a pile of money and split it once he left office.
"Preposterous," Blagojevich said Tuesday when asked about that allegation.
When Blagojevich thinks of Rezko, convicted of influence peddling and now imprisoned and cooperating with investigators, he calls his relationship with him "stupid." If it hadn't been for Rezko, he said, "I don't think I'm anywhere near the situation I'm in."
Blagojevich holds Rezko and many others responsible for his legal troubles, from his politician father-in-law to leading Illinois Democrats and U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald. He never points the finger at himself.
"The governor has an amazing propensity to blame other people for his self-inflicted wounds," said David Ellis, who led the Illinois impeachment case against him. "After all, he was caught on tape. This is not something where we're drawing circumstantial inferences from tidbits of facts. We were talking verbatim transcripts."
Blagojevich, who said he had a better record than any other governor in the country, defended his choice of Roland W. Burris (D) to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Obama. He said he was determined to appoint an African American to the position and believed that Burris's self-confidence and hunger for the job would see him through.
A host of Illinois lawmakers and the entire Democratic caucus in the U.S. Senate had told Blagojevich not to make an appointment after his arrest, arguing that any choice would be tainted. But he said it was his "constitutional duty" to choose a successor.
"Do I allow these fake politicians to convince me not to do my duty?" he asked, referring to Springfield legislators who would soon vote to impeach him and throw him out of office.
Fitzgerald said he arrested Blagojevich on Dec. 9 in part to prevent him from peddling the seat as the governor raced to raise campaign cash or cut himself a deal for a lucrative new job.
Blagojevich famously boasted on the FBI tapes that the Senate appointment was a valuable commodity and "I'm not just giving it up for [expletive] nothing." He cited as his criteria for filling the post "our legal situation, our personal situation, my political situation."
With no reference to the tapes, Blagojevich said in his book -- a mea non culpa -- that he asked himself a rather different question over and over: "How much do I love the people of Illinois?"
These days, Blagojevich is making money however he can while he prepares his defense. One of the biggest adjustments was finding himself unemployable -- "without a job and nothing to do, no work to do."
He wrote the book and he did his patented Elvis Presley impersonation at a street party hosted by a Chicago business. "It was a very generous offer," he said Tuesday. "I had a chance to get paid for something I do for nothing in the shower."
A lifelong fan, he no longer goes to Wrigley Field to see his beloved and seemingly doomed Chicago Cubs. Asked about their respective dismal seasons, he said: "I've thought about that. I've had a worse year."
On Jan. 20, about six weeks after his arrest, as impeachment became inevitable, Blagojevich said he could not help comparing his situation to that of another Illinois-based politician who was having a better day. As he headed to the courthouse, Obama was delivering his inaugural address.
The governor said he felt lonely.
"Here he was on Mount Olympus, getting sworn in as president of the United States, and I was in the federal building being fingerprinted," Blagojevich said. "He was Zeus, and I was Icarus. I flew too close to the sun and got burned."
Blagojevich said he has looked into the future and recognizes that "my two little girls have the possibility of a future without their father." But he keeps saying that the truth will come out at the trial. He is counting on a jury of 12 to end what he calls his nightmare.
"I've never lost an election," he said.