Jury hears he's a crook or victim

Crime, Law and JusticePoliticsNational GovernmentRod BlagojevichU.S. CabinetTony Rezko

The first jury to hear evidence that then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich allegedly tried to sell a U.S. Senate seat and generally abused his office with shakedowns for political and personal profit said it was confused by a sprawling case and unsure when the impeached governor's incessant chatter translated to a crime.

On Monday, it appeared to be lesson learned for federal prosecutors. Eight months after the first panel was hung on all but one count, a new jury was picked to weigh his retrial and heard a much slimmer, more focused version of the government's corruption case.

Opening statements saw Blagojevich painted by prosecutors as a schemer who betrayed the state. To the defense, he was a naive blabber who didn't make a corrupt nickel.

But most notable this time was the government's effort to portray Blagojevich 's talking as a crime in and of itself.

Previewing an array of government wiretaps the jury will hear over coming weeks, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Niewoehner bore in on the marquee charge in the case -- the accusation that Blagojevich in late 2008 hoped to squeeze Barack Obama over the governor's pick to replace the then-president-elect in the U.S. Senate.

"He was going to shake down the man who was going to become president of the United States," charged Niewoehner, explaining that Blagojevich used an intermediary to float a deal that would have the governor named to Obama's Cabinet in exchange for naming an Obama friend to the Senate post.

"And right there, the crime is complete," said Niewoehner, repeating that phrase often as he waded through the allegations.

In the months since the first Blagojevich trial ended without verdicts on most of the counts, prosecutors have dropped broad conspiracy charges against him, booted Blagojevich 's brother from the case and pared down some of the secret recordings made of the then-governor.

Those decisions were evident as Niewoehner presented a concise view of the case that boiled down to essentially five criminal episodes: the alleged Senate seat sale as well as alleged shakedowns of a road-building executive, a racetrack owner, a hospital official and Rahm Emanuel when he was a former U.S. representative and close political ally of Blagojevich 's.

Omitted completely from the presentation was any mention of complicated allegations that Blagojevich plotted in the early years of his administration with convicted fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko to illegally siphon cash from state deals. Jurors from last summer's trial said afterward they found confusing the money trail that prosecutors wanted them to follow.

Instead, the case as described by Niewoehner appeared to confine allegations of wrongdoing to actions taken by Blagojevich from 2006 until his arrest in December 2008.

Anticipating a theme that a Blagojevich lawyer would soon pick up in his presentation, Niewoehner stressed that the illegal deals Blagojevich was trying to cook up were never completed. They were crimes nonetheless, Niewoehner told jurors, likening the former governor to a corrupt cop who offers to make a speeding ticket disappear for a bribe from a motorist.

"It doesn't matter if the driver pays or not. The policeman has just made a criminal demand, and he's committed a crime," Niewoehner said.

Trying to trade an official act for something of value for himself is wrong, he told the jury.

In giving the defense opening, Blagojevich 's lawyer Aaron Goldstein hit repeatedly on the contention that the case amounts to no harm, no foul. Blagojevich talked a lot on the wiretaps, but "what ended up happening?" said Goldstein, uttering a phrase he would repeat over and over.

The jury will hear allegations of shakedowns and wrongdoing from government witnesses, all to no avail, Goldstein said, borrowing a theme from "Macbeth" to underscore his point. The case, he said, was "a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

"Do you think they found a big bag of cash hidden somewhere?" he said. "No, they found nothing because, in fact, there is nothing."

Goldstein said Blagojevich was the true victim in the case, beset upon by people hoping to pry favors from him that he never granted and who sometimes invented damning testimony to please prosecutors.

Many of those who prosecutors call victims in the case were actually millionaires who had been regular contributors to Blagojevich , Goldstein said.

Among them was of Maywood Park racetrack owner John Johnston, who was hit up for campaign cash at the same time he was hoping Blagojevich would fast-track the signing of legislation that would help out Johnston's business.

Goldstein said many of those expected to testify against the former governor stepped forward to complain about Blagojevich only after prosecutors pressed them, sometimes granting immunity and sometimes agreeing to plea deals.

"These stories don't get concocted 'til the government comes a-knockin'," Goldstein alleged.

Niewoehner told jurors that the prosecution case will take about five weeks, slightly shorter than the government presentation during the first trial. Blagojevich has said it is likely he will testify in his own defense, though he won't guarantee it. But he does not have to put on a defense and didn't in the first trial.

The first witness will take the stand Tuesday, and prosecutors said that will be FBI agent Daniel Cain, who led the investigation of Blagojevich .

After Cain, government lawyers said they would question John Harris, Blagojevich 's last chief of staff -- a signal that the Senate seat allegations will be featured early in the trial.

That is a departure from the largely chronological order that prosecutors followed last summer, putting their early emphasis on allegations of wrongdoing from Blagojevich 's first years as governor, something they now appear to be downplaying.

Wiretaps that encompassed the Senate sale allegations famously included one in which Blagojevich was heard describing his power to fill Obama's vacancy as "(expletive) golden" and something that he wouldn't give up for "(expletive) nothing."

"It was his thing, his golden thing," Niewoehner said. "He was going to get something for himself in exchange for it."

None of it seemed to faze Blagojevich , who quietly took notes as the prosecutor accused him of "betraying" the people of Illinois. After court, Blagojevich told reporters the accusation was a fabrication.

"I actually felt I stumbled into the wrong courtroom," he said. "The guy he is talking about certainly isn't me."

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