Published December 23, 2015
The unfolding controversy surrounding the Obama administration's attempts to clear the field for favored candidates couldn't come at a better time for the country's most notorious political deal-maker.
With jury selection beginning Thursday in the federal corruption trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, observers say the flamboyant defendant may be aided by reports of White House horse-trading.
After all, if the White House can do it, why can't he?
Blagojevich is accused of a litany of hard-nosed political schemes ranging from kickbacks to intimidation. The complaint against him suggests the White House refused to be a part of his alleged attempts to extract favors in exchange for appointing certain people to replace the newly elected president in the U.S. Senate.
But the White House has admitted to engaging in a similar kind of political gamesmanship -- in two races, it tried to lure challengers out of their primary races against administration-backed incumbents by suggesting the possibility of an administration job opening.
Defense attorney Barry Agulnick said it will be hard to have a trial within a trial -- in other words, the judge is unlikely to allow blatant references to the White House controversy in a courtroom devoted to examining Blagojevich's dealings. But he said the stories about White House intervention in the Pennsylvania and Colorado Senate races have got to make the prosecution nervous as jury selection begins.
"It shows that it's something that's commonly done and I'm sure his defense is going be that he was selectively prosecuted," Agulnick said. "If they're intelligent jurors, they read newspapers, they watch 24-hour cable, they're on the Internet, they're going to get the message. ... It's got to be something that's going to be helpful to the defense."
He said the defense team would be able to plant the seed during jury selection, submitting questions to jurors that ask them about the White House job offer coverage. From there, he said, "a skillful attorney can bring it in indirectly" during the course of the trial.
The most well-known scheme for which Blagojevich was charged is the alleged attempt to extract something of value in exchange for appointing a particular candidate to Obama's Senate seat. According to the complaint, he had different payoffs in mind for different candidates, one of whom was supported by the White House.
Blagojevich was convinced Obama wanted senior adviser Valerie Jarrett in the position and was willing to trade that for a job, according to the complaint; one of the positions he wanted was secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. The document indicates the White House did not play ball.
"They're not willing to give me anything except appreciation," Blagojevich was quoted as saying in the court document.
But the White House itself is now being accused of using appointments as currency, though administration officials say no explicit job offers were made to candidates in exchange for dropping out of their respective races.
Former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff has released an e-mail from White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina that described three federal jobs that might be available if he dropped his challenge against Sen. Michael Bennet. They were: deputy assistant administrator for Latin America and Caribbean for USAID; director of the Office of Democracy and Governance for USAID and director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.
The admission came after an acknowledgment that the White House tapped former President Bill Clinton to try to lure Rep. Joe Sestak out of the primary race against Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter. Sestak did not withdraw and won that race last month.
The White House says it did nothing wrong in either the Pennsylvania or Colorado races. The accusations against Blagojevich also go well beyond alleged kickback schemes.
But Democratic strategist Pat Caddell said the controversy is bound to help Blagojevich build the case that he's being selectively tried.
"That does raise an interesting question -- why are we putting him in jail?" Caddell said. "If I were the jurors, I'd be asking that."
Blagojevich was defiant as he arrived at the federal courthouse Thursday in Chicago. He told the crowd he wants the prosecutor to "play the tapes ... they are liars." The former governor wants the court to play all 500 hours of the FBI's secretly recorded tapes of his conversations, though the judge has indicated that is unlikely to happen.