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Jury convicts ex-Ill. Gov. Blagojevich at retrial

Monday, June 27, 2011 | 3:00 p.m. CDT; updated 4:08 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 19, 2011

CHICAGO — Rod Blagojevich, who rode his talkative everyman image to two terms as Illinois governor before scandal made him a national punch line, was convicted Monday of a wide range of corruption charges, including the incendiary allegation that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's Senate seat.

The verdict was a bitter defeat for Blagojevich, who had spent 2 1/2 years professing his innocence on reality TV shows and later on the witness stand. His defense team had insisted that hours of FBI wiretap recordings were just the ramblings of a politician who liked to think out loud. He faces up to 300 years in prison, although sentencing guidelines are sure to reduce his time behind bars.

Blagojevich is the second straight Illinois governor convicted of corruption. His predecessor, George Ryan, is now serving 6 1/2 years in federal prison.

Judge James Zagel ruled that Blagojevich will be barred from traveling outside the area without permission from the judge. A status hearing for sentencing was set for Aug. 1.

The case exploded into scandal when Blagojevich was awakened by federal agents on Dec. 9, 2008, at his Chicago home and was led away in handcuffs. Federal prosecutors had been investigating his administration for years, and some of his closest cronies had already been convicted.

"The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave," U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said in front of a bank of television cameras after the arrest.

Blagojevich, who was also accused of shaking down businessmen for campaign contributions, was swiftly impeached and removed from office.

The verdict provided affirmation to Fitzgerald, one of the nation's most prominent prosecutors, who had condemned Blagojevich's dealings as a "political crime spree." Mentioned at times as a possible future FBI director, Fitzgerald pledged to retry the governor after the first jury deadlocked on all but the least serious of 24 charges against him.

This time, the 12 jurors voted to convict the 54-year-old Blagojevich on 17 of 20 counts after deliberating for nine days. He also faces up to five additional years in prison for his previous conviction of lying to the FBI.

After his arrest, Blagojevich called federal prosecutors "cowards and liars" and challenged Fitzgerald to face him in court if he was "man enough."

In what many saw as embarrassing indignities for a former governor, he sent his wife to the jungle for a reality television show, "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here," where she had to eat a tarantula. He later showed his own ineptitude at simple office skills before being fired on Donald Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice."

To most Illinois residents, he was a reminder of the corruption that has plagued the state for decades.

For the second trial, prosecutors streamlined their case, and attorneys for the former governor put on a defense that was highlighted by a chatty Blagojevich taking the witness stand for seven days to portray himself as a big talker but not a criminal.

Testifying was a gamble for the former congressman, who had promised to take the stand in his first trial but failed to do so after his attorneys rested their case without calling a single witness.

Prosecutors dropped Blagojevich's brother as a defendant and cut down on the number of charges against the ousted governor. They summoned about half as many witnesses, asked fewer questions and barely touched on topics not directly related to the charges, such as Blagojevich's lavish shopping or his erratic working habits.

Blagojevich seemed to believe he could talk his way out of trouble from the witness stand. Indignant one minute, laughing the next and seemingly in tears once, he endeavored to counteract the blunt, greedy man he appeared to be on FBI wiretaps. He apologized to jurors for the four-letter words that peppered the recordings.

Blagojevich clearly sought to solicit sympathy. He spoke about his working-class parents and choked up recounting the day he met his wife, the daughter of a powerful Chicago alderman. He reflected on his feelings of inferiority at college, where other students wore preppy "alligator" shirts. Touching on his political life, he portrayed himself as a friend of working people, the poor and the elderly.

He told jurors his talk on the wiretaps merely displayed his approach to decision-making: to invite a whirlwind of ideas — "good ones, bad ones, stupid ones" — then toss the ill-conceived ones out. To demonstrate the absurdities such brainstorming could generate, Blagojevich said he once considered appointing himself to the Senate seat so he could travel to Afghanistan and help hunt down Osama bin Laden.

Other times, when a prosecutor read wiretap transcripts where Blagojevich seems to speak clearly of trading the Senate seat for a job, Blagojevich told jurors, "I see what I say here, but that's not what I meant."

The government offered a starkly different assessment to jurors: Blagojevich was a liar and had continued to lie over and over to their faces.

Lead prosecutor Reid Schar started his questioning of Blagojevich with a quick verbal punch: "Mr. Blagojevich, you are a convicted liar, correct?"

"Yes," Blagojevich eventually answered after the judge overruled a flurry of defense objections.

The proof, prosecutors said, was there on the FBI tapes played for jurors.

Prosecutors may also have been helped by testimony from Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who was called to testify by the defense but whose testimony backfired. During cross-examination, he told jurors that Blagojevich did not appoint Jackson's wife to head the Illinois Lottery in part because Jackson hadn't given the governor a $25,000 campaign donation.

In closing arguments, prosecutor Carrie Hamilton likened Blagojevich as Illinois' chief executive to a corrupt traffic cop tapping on car windows and pressing drivers for a bribe to tear up a speeding ticket.


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