CHICAGO — Many have predicted that the federal trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich will be a circus. Whether it is could be crucial to who wins the case.
Jury selection for Mr. Blagojevich’s trial opens today at the Dirksen Federal Building in downtown Chicago. He is accused of 24 counts of fraud, conspiracy, bribery, and racketeering, involving attempts to trade official acts as governor in exchange for contributions to his campaign fund.
Among the parties whom prosecutors say Blagojevich sought favors from are the president of a Chicago children’s hospital, the Chicago Tribune, and potential candidates for the open Senate seat vacated by President Obama.
Since his arrest Dec. 9, 2008, Blagojevich aggressively courted the American public with the celebrity savvy of Paris Hilton. Late-night talk shows, morning talk shows, primetime reality shows, a book, a weekly radio show – all were platforms for Blagojevich to sell himself to potential jurors.
He has sought to cast himself as a populist reformer who was unfairly done wrong by a Democratic political machine with an ax to grind and an overzealous federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, a man the former governor recently suggested might not be “man enough” to face him in the courtroom.
Blagojevich’s defense team will be counting on their client’s shoot-from-the-hip charm. It is how they are expected to try to dissuade jurors from taking seriously the 100 hours of telephone wiretaps the prosecution plans to play in court. The argument: Blagojevich was just a foul-mouthed politician engaged in verbal sparring in a world of pay-to-play politics.
“They’re going to say what he was saying on those tapes was a verbal, stream-of-conscious thinking, and that he never did pull the trigger [on the schemes],” says Chicago securities attorney Andrew Stoltmann. “That’s where the publicity tour … helps him. He’s seen as a loose cannon, as a guy who says what’s on his mind. There are going to be some jurors who say that doesn’t rise to the level of a criminal offense.”
The prosecution’s case is dependent on connecting the verbal rants to actual extortion schemes that Mr. Fitzgerald once described as a “political corruption crime spree.” Its witness list includes Lon Monk, a top aide, and John Harris, Blagojevich’s former chief of staff. Both men pleaded guilty to their own set of similar charges and will testify to what happened behind closed doors in order to prove that their former boss was not just about talk, but put his words to action.
Fitzgerald’s team “will have to go to great lengths to keep the jury focused on the big picture and not get lost in the details,” says Ron Safer, a former assistant US Attorney based in Chicago. The greatest challenge, he says, is to guide the jurors away from the governor’s turbocharged personality and to the roadmap showing “the picture of the crime.”
“There is a danger of overtrying the case by putting everything in and getting lost in the big picture. From the prosecution’s point of view, less is more. If they are surgical, they will be much better off,” he says.
The two Sam Adams
Among several things that will make the trial unique is Blagojevich’s legal team: the father-and-son duo of Sam Adam Sr. and Sam Adam Jr. Both men are notorious in Chicago for their homespun charm and savvy theatricality in the courtroom, as well as their high win record. Mr. Adam Jr., who is expected to lead the defense, most recently helped R&B superstar R. Kelly, a Chicago native, earn an acquittal in his trial on child pornography charges.
The defense has not been shy about its strategy regarding Blagojevich. Besides repeated requests that jurors hear all 300 hours of wiretaps, the defense also wants jurors to listen to testimony from a long and high-profile list of ancillary figures, including Senate majority leader Harry Reid, US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., US Sen. Richard Durbin, and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
Judge James Zagel, who is presiding over the trial, already ruled against the defense’s request for testimony from President Obama.
For a trial predicted to last four months, the more witnesses and tape jurors will have to endure the greater the chances they will be become bored, distracted, or confused.
Beginning today in jury selection, both teams are choosing from 34 candidates brought in for questioning. Determining a final selection of 12, plus six alternates, is expected to take four days.
The prosecution risks encountering a jury pool that is less than shocked about Chicago’s pay-for-play political culture, says Mr. Stoltmann. “If there is such a fundamental belief by potential jurors that Illinois politics are corrupt, Blagojevich is going to get a free pass on some of this stuff. Jurors will say, ‘Guess what? That’s how politics are played in Illinois,’ ” he says.