Tears of a Clown: Blagojevich Takes the Stand

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Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich arrives at federal court in Chicago for his corruption trial Wednesday, May 26, 2011

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Blagojevich was willing to be apologetic, acknowledging that the wiretap tapes the jury had already heard were littered with F bombs. He joked that his eldest daughter Amy blew him a kiss before he left for court Thursday morning and warned him, "Good luck, and watch your language." "So I'd like to apologize to the women and men for those terrible words, like when I saw the Senate seat as f------ golden," Blagojevich testified. "When I hear myself on tape swearing like that, I'm a f______ jerk, and I apologize for that."

Blagojevich then played on emotions by delving into his relationship with his wife. As he recalled his first meeting with Patti, who he said was wearing a red dress at a political fundraiser for her father on March 6, 1988, he began to choke up on the witness stand. Across the court from him, tears streamed down Patti Blagojevich's face as well. Judge James Zagel responded by asking the courtroom to take a break. "Oh, no, I'm O.K.," Blagojevich quickly said, all signs of emotion ceasing (though that seemed to make his wife cry more even more.) "No, let's take a break anyways," Zagel replied.

For Blagojevich's defense team, putting the ex-governor on the stand doesn't come without risk — the biggest one being that he commits perjury. If that happens, it could bring on more charges and have a large impact on the sentencing guidelines and his potential sentence, according to Daniel Purdom, former assistant U.S. Attorney in Chicago. "If you call a defendant to testify, it allows the government to highlight its evidence and to make a second closing argument during cross-examination," says Purdom, a partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson, where he heads the white-collar-crime group. "He's going to be confronted with a lot of damaging statements and facts in addition to being asked a lot of tough questions he can't answer."

The prosecution's streamlined case has been drastically pared down from last summer's. The former governor, who was found guilty on just one of 24 counts in August 2010, now faces 20 charges, including the alleged attempt to sell Obama's Senate seat for campaign cash or a high-paying job. The prosecution, which rested after only two weeks (compared with six weeks last year), has narrowed its scope of testimony. The prosecutors included a PowerPoint presentation with pictures of witnesses and their titles to assist jurors. They also provided the panel with a binder containing a timeline of events.

The web of political linkages in the Blagojevich trial became manifest on Wednesday, May 25, when the witness stand was occupied by former White House chief of staff and newly elected Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., subpoenaed by the defense team. Both testimonies were so hostile and convoluted that they may in the end backfire.

Though he admitted he wanted the Senate seat, Jackson denied that he raised money for Blagojevich in an attempt to land it. The Congressman contributed an entertaining anecdote about the governor's snapping his fingers to emphasize that Jackson should have contributed money. For his part, during a five-minute appearance, Emanuel said no one had ever asked him, while he was a Congressman in 2006, to have his brother arrange a fundraiser for the governor in exchange for the release of a $2 million grant to a school in Emanuel's congressional district or to set up a nonprofit for Blagojevich to run in exchange for appointing Valerie Jarrett to Obama's Senate seat. Jarrett is now one of the President's chief advisers.

Blagojevich's arcane assertions from the stand — including one about Obama, Pennsylvania and the veto of Illinois legislation — clearly wore the patience of the court. At one point, when the jury was not present, Zagel summed up Jackson's and Emanuel's testimonies by saying," Unfortunately, [Rod Blagojevich] just realized there is a difference in quid pro quo today. There is a difference in 'If you vote for my bill, I'll vote for your bill' and 'If you pay a large amount of money, I'll vote for your bill or I'll appoint your mother to the Supreme Court.' "

Blagojevich is expected to testify in his own defense and undergo cross-examination into the middle of next week. His defense chose not to put him on the stand in his previous trial — which ended in some success, with the hung jury. Some feel that despite the melodrama of his testimony, the former governor may be eliciting sympathy from the jury. However, it remains to be seen if making him speak this time is worth the risk at the end.

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