By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; 2:21 PM
CHICAGO -- When Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor, steps into a federal courtroom on Thursday, his madcap appearances on "Celebrity Apprentice" and the Second City comedy stage will be history. He will be playing to an audience of 13 -- a dozen jurors and one no-nonsense judge -- in the most pivotal performance of his life.
Blagojevich (D), who likes to say that he has never lost an election, will face three supremely experienced prosecutors, the same ones who put his friend Antoin Rezko, a notorious Chicago fundraiser, behind bars. They will be marshaling dozens of secretly taped conversations and the testimony of some of Blagojevich's closest allies, now witnesses for the prosecution.
"He'll have some explanation, but he's got a lot of explaining to do," said Jeffrey Cramer, until recently a supervisor in the U.S. attorney's office here. "I wouldn't want to be on that witness stand with the evidence the prosecution has."
Blagojevich, a lawyer who spent his career in politics, has vociferously proclaimed his innocence. He told the Illinois Senate in 2009 when he was forced from office, "There was never a conversation where I intended to break any law." He told The Washington Post in September, "Every allegation's a lie."
Public corruption in Chicago is old hat. It has only been four years since a federal jury in the same courthouse convicted former governor George Ryan (R) on racketeering charges. But Blagojevich, 53, is an unorthodox defendant, and one thing that sets him apart is his campaign-style pursuit of pretrial publicity.
Within days of his startling December 2008 arrest, through his impeachment by the Illinois legislature and onward toward trial, Blagojevich has spoken with almost anyone who offered a microphone. He wrote a memoir proclaiming his innocence and did a singing and dancing Elvis impersonation for cash at a private Chicago street party.
"This is definitely a strategy, to go out there and make yourself a part of the headlines," said Julian Solotorovsky, a white-collar defense lawyer and former prosecutor. "It's a calculated risk. They're hoping to find one of the 12 jurors to say that this man has been persecuted rather than prosecuted and that what he's doing is no different from what every other Illinois politician does."
"It only takes one juror," he said, "to hold out and get you a mistrial or gum up the works."
The public evidence against Blagojevich paints a portrait of greed and corruption that began even before the former congressman began his first term as governor in 2003. In a trial expected to last three to four months, prosecutors intend to show that Blagojevich schemed to trade state decisions for cash and campaign contributions -- and tried to peddle an appointment to President Obama's former Senate seat to the highest bidder.
Hundreds of pages of documents filed by the prosecution depict Blagojevich and his friends trying to turn state business into a pocket-lining enterprise while seeking to build a national fundraising operation that would carry him to the presidency.
Along the way, Rezko allegedly funneled tens of thousands of dollars in bogus real estate fees to Blagojevich's wife, Patti, who is named as a conspirator but has not been charged. Rezko also allegedly delivered a series of $10,000 payments to the governor's then-chief of staff Lon Monk, who has pleaded guilty and will testify for the government.
Blagojevich is accused of sending aides to shake down a racetrack operator and a road contractor. In the example most often cited by students of the case, Blagojevich allegedly sought a $50,000 campaign contribution from a Chicago Childrens' Hospital executive in return for releasing $8 million in Medicaid payments owed to the hospital.
By 2008, halfway through his second term, Blagojevich was tired of his job and anxious to make more money, according to transcripts of conversations secretly recorded by the FBI. He hurried to stock his campaign coffers ahead of imminent new regulations and, prosecutors contend, he plotted to profit from Obama's rise to the presidency.
"I've got this thing and it's [expletive] golden and I'm not just giving it up for [expletive] nothing," Blagojevich said on tape, referring to his authority to appoint Obama's successor. He said the criteria in filling the job would be, in order, "our legal situation, our personal situation, my political situation."
The trial is expected to expose details of Blagojevich's final months in office, which U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald called "a public corruption crime spree" that "would make Lincoln roll over in his grave." The unanswered questions include the extent of efforts by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) to win the Senate appointment, which later went to Roland Burris (D).
Jury selection is expected to take at least several days in U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel's courtroom. Then the testimony, and Blagojevich's biggest battle, will begin.
"This has been Rod's last campaign and he has been campaigning for 18 months," said Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association and a longtime Chicago political reporter. "As theater, it may be tough to top this, but I hope that people don't lose sight of the seriousness. The government of our state, the land of Lincoln, is on trial this summer along with the ex-governor."