Blagojevich — and a Culture of Corruption — Go on Trial

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Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich (C) is flanked by his wife Patty (R), speaks with reporters after arriving at federal court on June 8, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois.

The fanfare surrounding the trial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich seems more appropriate for a Hollywood red carpet than a federal prosecution case that includes 24 counts of racketeering, bribery and extortion charges practically out of a James Patterson novel. On Tuesday morning, as he entered the 25th floor of the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Blagojevich betrayed no signs of nervousness, turning to the public and press to proclaim, "Finally you'll be able to hear things I've been dying to tell you for the last year and a half." He was besieged with sympathetic words and requests for autographs.

"Governor Blagojevich, I've got a graduation card for you," cried out Paula McGowen, 56, a housewife from the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, standing in the hallway to the courtroom. The defendant promptly gave her a hug. The card was a reference to what happened in court the Friday before. Blagojevich's wife, Patti, had burst into tears after Judge James Zagel denied the defense team's request to postpone opening arguments so that she and her husband could attend their daughter Amy's eighth grade graduation. "I'm a mother, I wouldn't want to miss that," McGowen said. Defending the governor, she added, "I mean, I've got a big mouth but that doesn't mean I'm guilty of something. He's just a big chatter box and I hope he gets a fair trial. Besides, to stay in politics you have to make deals."

But the dealmaking Blagojevich is accused of could get him 415 years in prison, if he is found guilty on all counts. Among the things he is accused of: trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama; negotiating who would get state construction contracts as well as who would handle a $10 billion pension fund loan deal; holding up a $2 million state grant for a Chicago school unless White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel convinced his Hollywood agent brother to throw a campaign fund-raiser for the governor. Much of the evidence is on tape. "That's just politics in Illinois," said McGowen's husband, Kenneth McGowen. "Nobody knows right from wrong because everyone is doing it and getting away with it." Blagojevich is the fifth governor of Illinois to be indicted in the past 50 years.

"There is a culture of corrupt and history of corruption in Chicago that dates back to 1856 when county commissioners and aldermen were in scheme crooked scheme to paint city hall," says Dick Simpson, Head of the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Chicago machines and politics underlies the history of this city and state. We are the most corrupt city and state in the country although New Jersey and Louisiana are major competitors of corruption." Since 1970, Simpson says approximately 1,500 people have been convicted of political public corruption, including 31 aldermen.

"The invisible defendant of this trial is the state of Illinois," said Andy Shaw, Executive Director of the Better Government Association. "The government is on trial and this is teachable moment since 13 million Illinois residents are going to have a chance to see the government like they've never seen before. The curtain is going to be pulled back to see how the government has really operated."

So far, the case has seemed more like lessons in clowning. Talks surround his dark full head of hair as much as his confidence and defiance of pending charges. Since being impeached, Blagojevich has gone on a media blitz skyrocketing him into national celebrity status. He appeared on Donald Trump's show The Apprentice and attempted to become a contestant on the NBC reality show I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, which Judge Zagel refused to allow, urging him to focus on the seriousness of the pending trial. Blagojevich sent his wife instead (she ate a tarantula on the show). Both Blagojevich and his wife the daughter of Chicago alderman Richard Mell, also joined Twitter, under the names governorrod and pblagojevich, respectively. A running joke during the jury selection was that the former governor was trying to taint the jury pool one tweet at a time. The judge put a stop to the tweeting too.

Opening arguments, however, injected seriousness and drama into the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Hamilton told the jurors that Blagojevich saw Obama's open seat as a golden ticket because the governor was facing financial problems including more than $200,000 in credit card debts and outstanding loans on his Chicago home. Blagojevich had sole authority to appoint a successor to the President's former seat under Illinois law. "When he was supposed to be asking, 'What about the people of Illinois?' he was asking 'What about me?'" Hamilton told the jury as a frowning Blagojevich shook his head.

The prosecution also alleges that real estate magnate and political fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko funneled $150,000 in phony real estate commissions to Blagojevich's wife; and that Blagojevich's brother, Robert, a co-defendant in the case, helped shake people down for campaign contributions. (Rezko was indicted on charges involving a government kickback scheme in 2006.)

The prosecution was immediately challenged by Blagojevich's defense attorney Sam Adam, Jr., who successfully defended the R&B star R. Kelly when the singer was charged with soliciting a minor for child pornography. Adam thundered that the governor had been the dupe of Rezko and others, like Lon Monk, his former chief of staff who "fooled, absolutely fooled," the former governor, Adam said. He also contended that Blagojevich was "probably one of the most insecure men you're ever going to see" which is why he relied on so much outside advice, frequently calling his trusted friends as much as a half dozen times or more a day.

Then, dramatically softening his voice to a whisper, Adams reminded the jurors of Blagojevich's financial situation, challenging them to follow the money trail because it would prove his client's innocence. "He's broke. He's broke," Adam said. "You know why he's broke, ladies and gentlemen? It's not hard. He didn't take a dime."

Simpson contends that the odds are still overwhelmingly against Blagojevich. "There's already a half dozen people convicted from Blagojevich's administration," he says. "He may not be convicted on all counts, but there isn't any way he wouldn't be convicted." Simpson expects the trial to go at least four months, past Labor Day. The results could affect local and national elections. "As the details of the corruption become widely known, Republican candidates will say Democratic candidates are corrupt and should be thrown out of office," Simpson says. "It is the exact same strategy Democrats and Blagojevich used when he was running for office while Governor [George] Ryan was facing charges and being indicted for a driver's license and bribery scandal."