Blagojevich's Lawyer: Taking the 'Unwinnable' Cases

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(L to R): Charles Rex Arbogast / AP, Seth Perlman / AP

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and his defense lawyer Ed Genson

If anyone had any remaining doubts whether embattled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was going to fight hard to hold onto his job — and freedom — in the face of stinging corruption allegations, they were surely dispelled after veteran Chicago defense lawyer Edward Genson came to his side.

Genson, 67, has never shied away from taking seemingly unwinnable cases, and even though he loses a fair share of them, it's often his opponents who end up playing the fool. "I teach cross-examination at my law firm, and a lot of what I teach I learned by watching Ed Genson carve up my witnesses," said Scott Lassar, a former U.S. Attorney in Chicago and current partner with the firm of Sidley Austin, who went mano a mano with Genson as a young prosecutor.

Blagojevich, who again showed up for work Thursday morning, is facing a storm of calls to resign even as impeachment hearings get under way in the state capital of Springfield. There, a panel of legislators pushed ahead after a brief delay over worries the impeachment would interfere with the federal prosecution of Blagojevich, who, according to a criminal complaint, tried to sell President-elect Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat, among other alleged corrupt acts.

Asked why he would take Blagojevich's case — given that the two-term governor reportedly owes another law firm upwards of $2 million, was denied by the Illinois Attorney General state funds to pay for the impeachment hearings and is facing the prospect of having his campaign fund frozen by the feds — Genson was his usual mischievous self. "I take the cases that are fun," he said. As best-selling author and famed lawyer Scott Turow put it in an e-mail to TIME, "He is a great lawyer who would have been almost as good as a circus ringmaster. He will have a great time with this case." (See the top 10 scandals of 2008.)

That much was clear from the moment Genson, a Northwestern University grad, took the case. Right off the bat, he said he was going to trial. During an appearance in Springfield, he mocked the impeachment process, saying that too many of the 21 members on the panel had already made up their minds and that there were no clear standards to govern the proceedings. At one point, a member suggested, "You really should go back to criminal-law school." Genson quickly retorted, "Well, I have been doing it for 44 years, and maybe you should go back to law school." When asked why Blagojevich wasn't at the proceedings to field questions, Genson said of the impeachment hearings, "This is Alice in Wonderland."

Though he has yet to file anything in federal court — no indictment has actually been returned against Blagojevich — Genson did hint at part of his strategy in Springfield on Thursday, saying the wiretaps that make up the bulk of the more salacious charges facing the governor were illegal. The evidence gathered in the taps, he said, was "illegally obtained" and should not be considered. He has also argued that all Blagojevich was doing was talking, not committing a crime. (Read TIME's top 10 political lines of 2008.)

Genson's disdain for the impeachment process is typical of how he views practically all proceedings against his clients. The charges are absurd, he'll routinely say, especially political charges, as he describes those lodged against his newest client. In Illinois, he will usually argue, you can't hold someone criminally accountable for simply playing along with a system that dictates — and ingrains the idea — that sometimes you have to pay to play, as the prosecution calls it.

It's almost a cliché in the Windy City to say that even prosecutors, should they run afoul of the law, would tap Genson to defend them. The son of a bail bondsman and a model-train enthusiast, he's become a rich man by being one of the go-to guys for people caught up in dire legal circumstances.

So dire, in fact, that winning is often a matter of perception for Genson, who uses a scooter and cane to ease the pain of walking due to a neuromuscular disorder. After all, he frequently goes up against government offices with conviction rates well above 90%, and he rarely negotiates plea agreements. Even if he loses, however, Genson will call it a win if the sentence is less than the government was seeking, if some of the often long list of counts are dismissed, or even if he gets the right prison for his client.

"Defense attorneys often lose, and he usually loses," said Lassar, who knows Genson both in and out of the courtroom. "But he's one of the best trial lawyers in town, so you go to him if you're thinking of going to trial, and this man has as many or more acquittals as anyone in town because he is a very good student of human nature."

While Genson spends much of his time in federal court, one of his more notable acquittals came in state court, where pop and R&B sensation R. Kelly faced child-pornography charges after being accused of making a sex tape with a teenage girl. Genson won the case, getting Kelly acquitted of all 14 counts. And in a 2003 verdict that stunned some court observers, Genson teamed with three other top-tier lawyers to win the acquittal of Bruno Mancari, the brother of a well-known Chicago-area auto dealer, on charges he murdered a childhood pal 18 years earlier.

"I've known him for over 30 years, and he's seen it all," said former governor James Thompson, whose powerhouse firm, Winston & Strawn, once represented the governor's campaign fund. "He's tough, and he knows Chicago."

But Genson has also had his losses. One was Mel Reynolds, the disgraced Chicago Democratic Congressman who was convicted of having sex with an underage volunteer. Another was Scott Fawell, former governor George Ryan's chief of staff and political headhunter, who was sent to federal prison (and has since been released) after being convicted of racketeering and other federal charges. At the corruption trial of Ryan, Blagojevich's predecessor, Genson represented Ryan's co-defendant, Lawrence Warner, who is in a Colorado federal penitentiary with a projected release date of October 2009. (Ryan, who was also convicted, is seeking a pardon from President Bush.) More recently, Genson advocated unsuccessfully for Conrad Black, the disgraced media baron accused of fleecing his company, Hollinger, of millions. Black is serving a federal sentence near Orlando, Fla., until 2013.

To some observers that may seem like a less than stellar record. But for a certain kind of client who isn't willing to give up without a fight, Genson is the ideal advocate. "These clients are very sick, they're at death's door, and they're [looking] for someone — anyone — to save them," said Steve Rhodes, publisher of the online publication the Beachwood Reporter, who did an extensive profile of Genson for Chicago magazine in 2005. "Genson will try every last thing, and he's right for people who just decide that they're not going to give in." In other words, he's just right for Rod Blagojevich.

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