The Blagojevich Trial: The Tale of the FBI Tapes

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Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich arrives for his trial at the Dirksen Federal Building on June 14, 2010

Tears streamed down the face of Patti Blagojevich as the recorded voice of her husband, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, echoed in the courtroom of the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois. "It's very important for me to make a lot of money," Blagojevich said to his chief of staff John Harris on an FBI tape. "I need independence. I need freedom."

Not able to look at his wife, Blagojevich sat at the defense table, fixed on Harris, in the witness stand, even as the disembodied voices went on. "I've got the scrutiny going on, lawyers to pay for," Blagojevich continued on the recording made on Nov. 12, 2008, weeks away from his eventual arrest on corruption charges and less than three months before his impeachment. Prosecutors claim that he and his wife had amassed more than $200,000 in mortgage and credit card debt. "How the hell am I gonna send my kid to college? That's the biggest f--ing downside that I'm really dealing with. And it's like, never again am I ever gonna f---ing screw my kids and my family, and put them in a position like this. I gotta fix this."

The way Blagojevich sought to fix it, prosecutors allege, was by leveraging the power he had as governor to fill the soon-to-be vacated seat of Barack Obama. In recordings played in court this week, the prosecution painted a picture of a desperate, greedy and perhaps delusional politician who once dreamed of running for President in 2016 only to see that ambition shattered by the rise of another local politician — and then trying to take advantage of the situation to pay his bills and figure if it could provide a way for him to step into a stage larger than Illinois. Indeed, on tape, Blagojevich is heard saying that he had an "ace in the hole": appointing himself senator. He never got to do that because it was a nomination that the incoming White House would have found repugnant.

On the tapes of FBI wiretaps played this week, the jury heard Blagojevich wonder, as he spoke to Harris, what a Senate appointment for Obama's confidante Valerie Jarrett would be worth to the President-elect.The incident allegedly occured, Harris tesitified, on Nov. 10 after Blagojevich fundraiser John Wyma told him that Rahm Emanuel, Obama's soon-to-be chief of staff, said that the President-elect would be "thankful and appreciative" if the governor appointed Jarrett to the senator position.

On the call, Harris told Blagojevich that "[Wyma] said he was tryin' to get a hold of you , but he hasn't been able to get through to you. That Rahm asked him to deliver the message that President-elect would be very pleased if you appointed Valerie and he would be, ah, 'thankful and appreciative.' Those are the operative words."

"Grateful and appreciative," Blagojevich then said on the tape, which Harris corrected in response. "Thankful and appreciative."

Apparently not satisfied with gratitude, Blagojevich floated the idea that Obama could convince wealthy presidential supporters like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to funnel $10 million to $15 million into a Blagojevich non-profit. "Grateful and appreciative, huh?" The governor told to Harris on tape, "I got a 501(c)4. Can he get Warren Buffett and some of his friends to help us with that?... I need a place to land. What about the reality of that?"

On a three-way phone conversation wiretapped by the FBI, Blagojevich, deputy governor Bob Greenlee and Harris considered other options the governor might suggest as a reward for naming a Senator acceptable to the White House, from becoming an ambassador to heading charities. "United Way, what is United Way?" Blagojevich asked. "What does it pay?" "It's very good pay, two-to-threes [$200,000 to $300,000]," Greenlee told him. "Oh, that's all?" Blagojevich responded on tape. (Greenlee, who resigned as deputy governor after Blagojevich's Dec. 2008 arrest, has not been charged with a crime; Harris was arrested on the same day as Blagojevich but pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to solicit a bribe and is cooperating with the prosecution in the current trial.)

On tape, Blagojevich thought out loud of being an ambassador to India or South Africa, even as Harris tried to temper his idea. "I'm the governor of a $58 billion corporation, why can't I be the ambassador to India," he asked. "What's more important, commerce secretary or ambassador to India?" Blagojevich even considered board appointments akin to Elizabeth Dole's on the Red Cross. He also brought up the Salvation Army. "That would be huge," he said about the Salvation Army. "But have to wear a uniform, forget that." When that part of the tape was played in court, Blagojevich cracked a grin, throwing a glance at his wife.

After Jarrett pulled herself out of Senate contention (Obama would put her in his administration as an advisor), Harris testified that Emanuel provided an "acceptable" list of names which includes: Illinois state comptroller Dan Hynes, U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky, U.S. representative Jesse Jackson Jr., and Tammy Duckworth, the disabled Iraq war veteran who came close to winning a congressional seat in 2006. Blagojevich called the list "B.S." Harris explained from the stand that the governor thought the list a political fig-leaf to make it look like Obama had candidates from a broad variety of backgrounds for the job. "If that became public, the president-elect would want the list to represent a diverse group of individuals," Harris said from the stand Thursday. At one point, the governor said perhaps he had to find an African American Tammy Duckworth for the slot (Duckworth is of Asian descent.) Blagojevich would eventually nominate Illinois political veteran Roland Burris, who is African-American.

Blagojevich's conniving yet off-kilter world view seemed consistent with his operating style. "He wasn't paying attention to being governor, he was more concerned with how to raise money and how to cut deals," says Ronald C. Smith, Professor of Law at The John Marshall Law School where he teaches federal criminal law. "Everything I hear from people who knew him at the state's office, was that once he got up there and became governor he realized it was a lot of work. He just didn't like being governor that much and he wasn't a nose to the grindstone kind of guy, it just wasn't that much fun for him."

Being an ex-governor must be even less fun. Blagojevich faces 24 counts of racketeering, bribery and extortion charges, that could amount to 415 years in prison and $6 million fines if he's found guilty on all charges. The trial resumes on Monday.