Witness in Blagojevich case admits pressuring asset management firm with loss of business

CHICAGO (AP) — A Chicago attorney told Rod Blagojevich's corruption trial Thursday that he warned an asset management firm it had to hire a consultant recommended by one of the former governor's top fundraisers or lose $80 million in business with a state pension board.

In his second day on the witness stand, Joseph Cari testified that he delivered the warning to the Virginia-based JER Partners under pressure from disgraced attorney Stuart Levine.

In one wiretap tape played in court, a highly agitated Levine was heard talking to Cari about yanking the $80 million commitment of state pension funds to JER because it hadn't hired the consultant recommended by the fundraiser, now-convicted political fixer Tony Rezko.

"I can change that, but I don't like to do things like that," Levine says about pulling the money, adding that the "political powers that be" would be upset if the consultant were not hired. Cari testified he took that as a reference to Blagojevich and his inner circle.

Federal prosecutor Reid Schar asked Cari what Levine had been saying.

"Clearly, that if they didn't hire the consultant they wouldn't get the money," he said.

Cari, a former national finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has pleaded guilty to attempted extortion in connection with the threat to JER and is hoping for a lenient sentence as a reward for his testimony at both the Blagojevich and Rezko trials.

He said he made the call to the asset management firm only because he was afraid that if he did not Levine would pull his law business from Cari's firm and freeze Cari's own asset management firm out of the state pension money.

He said Blagojevich sent him a similar message on a plane ride to a New York fundraiser, which he said he understood as so: That if you got state work, you would have to make political contributions — and if you made political contributions, you would get state work.

An attentive Blagojevich sat forward during Cari's testimony, his eyes fixed on the witness stand — sometimes nodding his head as his attorney cross-examined Cari. As with previous government witnesses, the defense endeavored to portray Cari as untrustworthy, and he admitted that he initially lied to prosecutors.

Under cross-examination by Blagojevich attorney Michael Gillespie, Cari acknowledged that he had never been pressured or threatened by Blagojevich. The former governor looked pleased.

The usually talkative Blagojevich refused to comment Thursday when he arrived in court, grinning at reporters but drawing his index finger across his mouth in the zipped-lip sign.

Judge James Zagel had accused Blagojevich on Wednesday of making a "backhanded play for sympathy" in comments about a witness' testimony, but stopped short of imposing the gag order prosecutors requested. He did warn, however, that he didn't want people making inaccurate statements to the news media.

Blagojevich has pleaded not guilty to trying to get a payoff in return for the appointment to the U.S. Senate seat Barack Obama gave up after his election as president. He has also pleaded not guilty to plotting to use the powers of the governor's office to launch a racketeering scheme.

If convicted, Blagojevich 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, businessman Robert Blagojevich of Nashville, Tenn., has pleaded not guilty to taking part in the alleged scheme to sell the Senate seat and scheming to squeeze a racetrack owner for a campaign contribution.