Blagojevich judge: Supreme Court ruling 'may not offer a lot of hope' to ex-governor's defense
CHICAGO – CHICAGO (AP) — A federal judge refused to delay Rod Blagojevich's corruption trial Thursday after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that could affect some of the charges against the former governor, telling defense attorneys that it "may not offer a lot of hope for you."
U.S. District Judge James Zagel said he had read the high court opinion limiting the use of a law that makes it illegal for public officials to deny taxpayers their right to the honest services of the officials.
Some of the 24 counts against Blagojevich are based on the honest services law, but federal prosecutors also brought charges that were not based on the law in anticipation of the high court ruling.
Defense attorneys told the judge they needed time to digest the ruling. But Zagel instead allowed Blagojevich's former chief of staff John Harris to return to the witness stand, saying the ruling "would not change the nature of this testimony" because it was based on Blagojevich's alleged conduct and likely would be pertinent to any remaining charges.
Blagojevich, 53, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he schemed to get a large payoff, a high-paying job after he left office or a big campaign contribution in exchange for the Senate seat. He has also pleaded not guilty to conspiring to launch a racketeering scheme using the powers of the governor's office.
If convicted, he could face up to $6 million in fines and a sentence of 415 years in prison, although he is certain to get much less under federal guidelines.
His brother, Robert Blagojevich, 54, has pleaded not guilty to taking part in the alleged scheme to sell or trade the Senate seat and conspiring to put illegal pressure on a potential campaign donor, a racetrack owner who was hoping Blagojevich would sign beneficial legislation.
On Wednesday, prosecutors played tapes, secretly made by the FBI, in which Harris and Blagojevich discuss how Blagojevich could parlay his authority to pick a replacement for President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat into a high-paying job or appointment.
In one tape, Blagojevich tells aides that Valerie Jarrett, the person Obama wanted as his successor in the Senate, had been informed he would appoint her to the seat if he received a position in the Cabinet.
The Supreme Court had refused a request from Blagojevich to delay his trial until the justices ruled on the honest services law, but Zagel had barred lawyers on both sides in the Blagojevich case from using the words "honest services" in their opening statements.
On Thursday, the justices were unanimous in imposing limits on the use of the law, which had been described by critics as so vague that a federal prosecutor could label all sorts of activities criminal.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago, Randall Samborn, declined to comment.