CHICAGO – Prosecutors wasted no time grilling Rod Blagojevich as they began cross-examining the impeached Illinois governor Thursday at his corruption retrial, setting a highly combative tone from the very first question.
"Mr. Blagojevich, you are a convicted liar, correct?" asked government attorney Reid Schar, raising his voice as he stepped up and hurled his first question at Blagojevich.
After the judge overruled a flurry of objections from defense lawyers, Blagojevich answered, "Yes."
Within minutes, tempers on all sides flared — Blagojevich's lawyers repeatedly objecting and Schar angrily appealing for the judge to direct Blagojevich to answer the question.
His voice rising further, Schar launched one question after another at Blagojevich, who tried to hold his ground and also sounded angry in response.
"Is it true that, as a politician, you not infrequently lied to the public?" Schar asked.
"I try to be as truthful as possible," Blagojevich responded firmly.
Schar, who spent years working on the Blagojevich case, likely relished the chance to confront him. At the first trial last year — in which Blagojevich was convicted of lying to the FBI — the ousted governor never took the stand and prosecutors never had a chance at cross-examination.
During five days of questions from his own attorney, Blagojevich denied all the allegations against him, including that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.
Schar asked the former governor later Thursday about convicted political fixer and longtime Blagojevich fundraiser Tony Rezko — described by prosecutors as a dark force who pulled strings behind the scenes during Blagojevich's time as governor.
The prosecutor asked Blagojevich if he feared in 2008 that Rezko, who also was once a fundraiser for Obama, might be cooperating with federal investigators.
"I was concerned about published reports ... that you were trying to make Mr. Rezko lie about me and President Obama," Blagojevich shot back.
Prosecutors got only an hour's worth of questions in before the judge adjourned until Monday. Schar said the government would likely have at least another day of questions for Blagojevich, but added that it could be longer if the contentious back-and-forth persisted
"If it continues like this, the leaves will start turning" color in fall, Schar said.
Blagojevich, 54, denies all wrongdoing. He faces 20 criminal counts, including attempted extortion, conspiracy to commit bribery and wire fraud. In his first trial last year, a hung jury agreed on just one count — the conviction of lying to the FBI.
Earlier Thursday, in questioning by his own attorney, Blagojevich insisted he wasn't asking for a Cabinet post in exchange for naming a preferred candidate to Obama's seat. He said he kept broaching the subject because the quick dismissal of the idea of him in such a prestigious job was embarrassing.
He told jurors during his fifth day on the stand that his talk about the seat and the possibility of getting a Cabinet post was just "manic brainstorming." But he said he understood right away it was pure fantasy and couldn't happen.
"It's like, if I could play center field for the Cubs, I would do that, too," he said.
Blagojevich told jurors he was embarrassed by the reaction of Obama ally and union leader Tom Balanoff to his idea of asking the then president-elect to make him secretary of Health and Human Services.
"I think it goes to one of my insecurities," Blagojevich said, explaining why he went on talking about a possible Cabinet post for days more. "I was embarrassed by the flat-out dismissal. You sure look bad in front of your staff."
Balanoff testified earlier for the government that he felt Blagojevich was linking the Cabinet post to the Senate seat, and he said he told Blagojevich it wasn't going to happen.
Blagojevich kept hammering on the theme that his comments about the seat were mostly wild talk. As if to prove the point, he said he once even entertained the notion of appointing himself to the Senate seat so he could go Afghanistan and join the search for Osama bin Laden.
Blagojevich also kept working in comments about continuously seeking legal advice as he contemplated whom to appoint.
"Any decision on the Senate seat had to be legal, obviously," Blagojevich said at one point, raising his voice and accentuating each word. Prosecutors objected and Judge James Zagel stopped him before he could go on.
Zagel had warned Blagojevich earlier not to say he thought his actions were legal at the time, saying that was not relevant to whether he committed a crime.
Karen Hawkins can be reached at — www.twitter.com/_khawkins. Michael Tarm can be reached at can be reached at — www.twitter.com/(at)mtarm.