CHICAGO – CHICAGO (AP) — Rod Blagojevich has traveled the talk show circuit for months, telling anyone who would listen that he's innocent of federal charges that he conspired to profit from his power as governor of Illinois to fill President Barack Obama's former Senate seat.
Now the impeached former governor and his lawyers are finally going to plead their case to a federal court jury in one of the biggest such trials in the annals of this corruption-battered state. At the trial, which begins Thursday, Blagojevich plans to take the stand himself and tell the tale again — but this time, planting enough doubt to overcome the evidence against him could be a tough sell.
Federal prosecutors have 500 hours of secretly made FBI wiretap tapes in which they say Blagojevich is plainly heard saying that he wants something in return for the Senate seat.
"I want to make money," the 53-year-old, bushy haired Democrat says in a telephone discussion of the seat with a lobbyist friend taped in November 2008, according to an FBI affidavit.
"I've got this thing and it's (expletive) golden, and I'm just not giving it up for (expletive) nothing," he is quoted as saying on tape made just one month before FBI agents arrived at his front door at dawn and politely notified him that he was under arrest.
Political insiders are lined up to take the stand at his trial, which could last four months. They include Blagojevich's former chiefs of staff John Harris and Alonzo "Lon" Monk, who were charged in the original indictment but have pleaded guilty. Harris could back up what prosecutors say the tapes mean, while Monk will most likely be asked about how Blagojevich and his closest advisers planned to use his power in order to make money.
Convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko, a top fundraiser for Blagojevich who likely knows all the secrets of the former governor's inner circle, also could be called to testify. He is awaiting sentencing and could get a break if he helps the government.
But it is the tapes that might be most damaging.
"You have what many consider to be the gold standard of evidence — over 500 hours of audio tapes in the governor's own voice," says Chicago attorney and trial watcher Andrew Stoltmann.
Blagojevich and his brother, Robert, a Nashville, Tenn., businessman, have pleaded not guilty to charges that they conspired not only to sell or trade the Senate seat but also turn the governor's office into a powerful machine to pressure people for campaign money and payoffs.
They deny charges they used the governor's power over the state pursestrings in an effort to squeeze hefty campaign donations out of a racetrack owner, a highway contractor, a children's hospital executive and even top presidential aide Rahm Emanuel, then an Illinois congressman.
"I've taken the position from the very beginning that I'm innocent of everything and anything they are falsely accusing me of," Blagojevich said in a recent television interview.
The former governor says he never schemed to sell the Senate seat but instead planned to give it to state Attorney General Lisa Madigan in a routine deal with her father, state House Speaker Michael Madigan, to push through tax cuts, a health care package and a jobs bill.
"He's going to say that he was trying to get chits in exchange for the seat — chits that he was going to cash for the good of the people," says Chicago defense attorney Ron Safer, a former federal prosecutor.
Blagojevich's lawyers say the jurors will know it's true if they hear all of the tapes and not just snippets, which they claim are all the government wants people to hear.
"It's as if someone took Abraham Lincoln's speech where he says, 'With malice toward none and charity for all,' and cut it off after the words, 'with malice,'" says defense attorney Sam Adam, a veteran of Chicago's rough-and-tumble criminal courts world.
Prosecutors are expected to say the claimed plan is largely fiction, and neither Madigan has been implicated in any wrongdoing.
Blagojevich, though, faces a 24-count indictment charging him with racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, four counts of attempted extortion, two counts of extortion conspiracy, two counts of bribery, two counts of bribery conspiracy, one count of lying to FBI agents and 11 counts of mail fraud.
The maximum penalty: a towering 415 years in prison and fines totaling $6 million.
Blagojevich appeared to launch his defense strategy on the heels of his arrest when he started hitting the talk shows, possibly to win goodwill from potential jurors by playing the lovable goof with big-haired charm and a flair for offbeat publicity stunts.
"He may find one person who says, "I think he's just a nice boy and I'm not going to convict him,'" says state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie. "He's trying to taint the jury pool."
Not so nice, prosecutors say. They have tapes of Blagojevich and his aides discussing the possibility of getting a high-paying, union-related job after leaving office in return for handing the Senate seat to Obama family friend Valerie Jarrett, now a White House adviser. And there is discussion on tape of a possible $500,000 campaign contribution if he would appoint U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. Neither Jackson nor anyone in the White House has been accused of wrongdoing.
Some attorneys say the government may have a tough time proving some charges because in the end Blagojevich didn't get anything in return for the Senate appointment, and simply named former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris.
"Juries tend not to like attempts," says Patrick M. Collins, a former prosecutor who headed the team that sent Blagojevich's predecessor George Ryan to prison for racketeering and fraud. "They tend to like completed crimes."
He suggests prosecutors might have an easier time with allegations such as the one against Rezko — a $7 million conspiracy to squeeze money management companies that wanted to do business with a state teachers pension fund for bribes and campaign contributions.
Rezko's 2008 trial lifted the lid on a bewildering maze of corruption reaching deep into the governor's office and two state boards that make multimillion dollar funding decisions.
Reform advocates say that trial showed the corruption that has long festered in Illinois was not easing. And they say the Blagojevich trial, if anything, is likely to focus even more attention on it.