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If TV shows can't pay Blagojevich's costs for retrial, taxpayers may have to

More than 100 people fill a parking lot outside Chicago for a chance to buy some of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich's possessions, whether it be a campaign sign or an Elvis statue. The items had been at a storage facility since 2002, when Blagojevich was in Congress, and its owner said the bill had not been paid.

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By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rod Blagojevich is broke, and U.S. taxpayers could be on the hook.

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The former Illinois governor, facing a retrial on corruption charges, has exhausted the $2.7 million from his campaign treasury that funded his defense. That may force him to rely on federal taxpayers to pay his attorneys -- unless he can land more reality television or media gigs, his advisers say.

And some Chicagoans are not exactly thrilled at the prospect of paying to defend a disgraced politico who already had his day in court in a six-year investigation that has cost millions and resulted in jurors deadlocking on 23 of 24 counts. On Tuesday, a federal jury convicted Blagojevich of one count of lying to the FBI. Prosecutors are vowing a retrial, which is common in high-profile federal cases with a deadlocked jury.

"There is widespread resentment at any tax dollars going to his defense," said Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association, a Chicago watchdog group. "This state is $12 to $13 billion in the red. But the people of Illinois will collectively hold our noses and pay the bill if we have to, because everyone is entitled to a defense."

(It would actually be the people of all 50 states: Funds to pay lawyers for indigent federal defendants are appropriated by Congress and maintained by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington.)

Immense federal budget

The financial travails of an impeached former governor -- who piled up debt and whose family spent about $400,000 on clothes in seven years, according to government calculations -- might not elicit much sympathy. But they illustrate the vast difference in resources between the federal government and defendants, especially those with government salaries and who might lack the funds for expensive lawyers.

Other political figures have faced financial troubles because of investigations that didn't always result in charges or convictions, including during the spate of independent-counsel inquiries in the 1990s. Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton had to raise millions to contest Kenneth W. Starr's $52 million-plus probe of Whitewater and President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. They were not criminally charged.

"The government's resources are unlimited. You're talking about an army of investigators, a battalion. Whatever they need, they get," said Cyril Wecht, a prominent Democrat and nationally known Pittsburgh forensic pathologist who was charged in 2006 with corruption relating to allegedly using his public coroner job to benefit his private practice.

After a federal jury deadlocked on 41 counts, prosecutors said they would seek a retrial, but they eventually dropped the case.

"It was horrible. It was constant pressure," said Wecht, who said he mortgaged his house and took out six-figure loans from his children to help pay about $11 million in legal fees -- and he still owes his attorneys $6.6 million.

Blagojevich, who faces up to five years in prison for lying, accused the government of wasting money during an appearance Friday on "The Today Show."

"This is a persecution by a prosecutor who for six years has targeted me," Blagojevich said. "He has spent tens of millions of dollars trying to get me."

Asked whether another stint on "The Celebrity Apprentice" or other reality TV shows is in his future, he said: "If the opportunities are there, I will certainly take a look at it."

Blagojevich's earlier appearance on the reality show and other attention-grabbing stunts, such as performing Elvis impersonations for cash, often gave his case an element of the surreal. But advisers say Blagojevich, who is married with two children, was forced to do whatever he could to make money after being removed from office last year.

"He has a family to raise, like everybody else," said his publicist, Glenn Selig. He said that the former governor has several entertainment-related projects in the works and that "if he can figure out a way where taxpayers at least don't have to pay for his side of this case, he's going to do that."

But without more income, Blagojevich can't pay for his retrial defense, said Selig, adding that "it's no secret to everyone that they are not known as savers." The judge has set a hearing for Thursday to determine how to proceed.

In the first trial, the judge, in an unusual arrangement, ordered the clerk's office at Chicago's federal courthouse to disburse the $2.7 million Blagojevich used from his campaign treasury to pay his attorneys. That account is empty, clerk Michael W. Dobbins said. If Blagojevich can't pay, he said, the judge will appoint publicly funded lawyers for him at the rate of $125 an hour. That's the same rate the judge had authorized for Blagojevich's first attorneys, who could be reappointed.

Cost estimates vary

It is unclear how much Blagojevich's seven-week trial cost. Dobbins said taxpayers shelled out $67,463 for the jury alone -- which included transportation and meals -- and Blagojevich's attorneys have speculated that the entire investigation cost between $25 million and $30 million.

Randall Samborn, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, said his office does not break out individual cases' costs. "Typically, the U.S. attorney's office returns more money to the federal treasury each year through collection of fines, forfeitures and civil judgments than we spend."

A federal law enforcement official familiar with the case said the defense estimate had "come out of thin air" but acknowledged that the cost was in the millions.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said cost estimates are unfair because government officials "get paid the same, regardless of what they're doing." Assistant U.S. attorneys who are not supervisors are paid about $110,000 a year, and U.S. attorneys are paid about $155,000, according to Justice Department figures.

Steve Bunnell, a former Justice Department public corruption prosecutor who is now a white-collar defense lawyer at O'Melveny & Myers, said defendants "always feel like they are at a resource disadvantage with the government, and to a certain extent that's almost always true."

High-profile cases such as Blagojevich's, he said, get "the Cadillac treatment" in resources.


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