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Blagojevich Joins Ranks of Illinois Gubernatorial Convicts

June 27, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
After 10 days of deliberations, a federal jury convicted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich Monday of trying to sell President Obama's former Senate seat, and of trying to extort executives for campaign donations. Hari Sreenisvasan discusses the trial and pending sentencing with Phil Ponce of WTTW's "Chicago Tonight."

GWEN IFILL: Former Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich was found guilty today on 17 charges of corruption, including an effort to barter President Obama’s old Senate seat.

Hari Sreenivasan has that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Rod Blagojevich seemed upbeat leaving his suburban Chicago home.

ROD BLAGOJEVICH, (D) former Illinois governor: Look, it’s in — it’s in God’s hands. And, you know, my hands are shaky. My knees are weak. I can’t seem to stand on my own two feet. And I’m praying and — and certainly hope for the best.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But those hopes were dashed by a federal jury in its 10th day of deliberations. It convicted the ousted governor of trying, in effect, to sell the vacant Illinois Senate seat left by President Obama.

He was also convicted of trying to extort executives for donations to his own campaign. The jurors spoke shortly after the verdict, but didn’t give their names.

JUROR NO. 146, jury forewoman: We know that there’s a lot of bargaining that goes on behind the scenes. We do that in our everyday lives and business and everything. But I think, in this instance, when it is someone representing the people, it crosses the line. And I think we sent a pretty clear message on that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In all, Blagojevich was found guilty on 17 of 20 counts. He was acquitted on one count, and the jury failed to reach decisions on the remaining two.

ROD BLAGOJEVICH: Patti and I obviously are very disappointed in the outcome. I, frankly, am — am stunned. There’s not much left to say, other than we want to get home to our little girls and talk to them and explain things to them, and then try to sort things out.

WOMAN: Governor, can we talk to you?

HARI SREENIVASAN: The two-term Democratic governor was arrested in December 2008 shortly after Mr. Obama was elected president. Blagojevich was removed from office in January 2009.

This trial was his second on the charges. The first jury deadlocked on 23 counts and convicted him on a single count of lying to the FBI. He faces up to five years in prison on that charge. The defense called no witnesses at that trial, but, this time, Blagojevich himself took the stand for seven days. He now faces a sentencing hearing in August. He faces a maximum of 300 years in prison.

Joining us now from Chicago to discuss today’s verdict is Phil Ponce, host of WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight.”

Thanks for being with us.

PHIL PONCE, WTTW: My pleasure.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Phil, the first question I have got to ask is why did this trial get such little coverage, compared to the last one? I mean, obviously, in Chicago, it’s a big story. But it seems that the rest of the country just let Blagojevich slide by on this.

PHIL PONCE: That’s a good question.

I would say probably because, number one, this trial was streamlined. There were — some of the so-called sexy allegations against Rod Blagojevich were not raised this time in the government’s attempt to streamline the case.

For example, a lot was made last year about how much — the hundreds of thousands of dollars literally that Rod Blagojevich had spent on his wardrobe. This year, the government went straight for the jugular. They streamlined things. It was a much shorter case. And I think the other thing is, I think there’s — there was a feeling here in Chicago that there was a little bit of Rod Blagojevich fatigue.

And — but I would say that, even so, when the jury announced its verdict of 17 guilty counts of the 20, it got everyone’s attention.

HARI SREENIVASAN: U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said today that the conduct would have made Lincoln roll over in his grave.

And we should remind folks that this was — he was found guilty of shaking down a children’s hospital, as well as attempting to fill his own coffers, right?

PHIL PONCE: Well, in the children’s hospital case, the allegation and what the jury found him guilty of was attempting to get a $25,000 campaign donation from the head of a children’s hospital, in exchange for higher reimbursement rates, state reimbursement rate, for kids who — for doctors who treat kids. So, that one — that one definitely got the jury’s attention.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, he had been on almost a relentless public relations campaign. He put his wife on a reality TV show. He appeared on one himself.

And, today, he maybe indicated that he might change strategies and speak a little less. But all that speaking didn’t seem to sway the jury.

PHIL PONCE: Well, it may have helped him the first time around when, you know, as you know, all it takes a one juror to hold out. And, in fact, that is what happened in the first trial. So, his — his charm offensive last year paid off. This year, it didn’t.

And it’s interesting, because, last year, it was a jury of six men and six women. This year, it was 11 women and one man. And, again, the government streamlined the case, so it was shorter. It was only — it was only — it was half as long as the first trial. And the jury came to a different conclusion.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, what about the defense? They didn’t — initially, they had planned on calling Jesse Jackson Jr., perhaps Valerie Jarrett, other senior members of the administration, Rahm Emanuel at the time, to try and speak up for him. That didn’t happen.

PHIL PONCE: Well, actually — actually, Jesse Jackson Jr. and Rahm Emanuel did testify very briefly. So, they — they — both of them testified.

It was — you know, there was all this anticipation when now Mayor Emanuel came on the stand. Later, he said that it took him longer to get to the courthouse than it did for him to actually testify.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, the jury said today that they wanted to believe him, but that the evidence really just kind of pointed in the opposite direction. Those phone calls, the FBI wiretaps seemed to be pretty damning.

PHIL PONCE: Well, the — the game-changer this time in the minds of many was that Rod Blagojevich actually took the stand.

And there was interesting reaction from the jury afterward — afterwards. One juror said that the fact that he was — quote — “personable” did make it a little harder, but ultimately they were able to just focus on the evidence. Another juror said that she found the governor to be very manipulative, and that his — his testimony really wasn’t very effective with her.

But, ultimately, he did put himself on the stand. He promised in the first trial that he would. He didn’t. This time, he did. And it didn’t serve him very well.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In the first trial, he was quite adamant, and arrogant, and really kind of making this almost a one-on-one situation against Patrick Fitzgerald, saying, you know, see me in court. I dare you. You guys are all crooks and liars.

PHIL PONCE: Well, I will say that, afterwards, U.S. Attorney Patrick — Patrick Fitzgerald talked to — talked to reporters. And he said he took no personal satisfaction in bringing this case against the governor, but that the intent was to send a message to Illinois politicians that, if they are going to engage in corruption, that the government will come after them.

Now, as you know, there is another sitting governor who is — a former governor who is now sitting in a federal prison. So, this makes two governors in a row who have been convicted of corruption. So, the state’s culture of corruption, if it changes, will evidently change slowly.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right. And I think four out of the last eight governors have been convicted of some crime or another.

It seems that the juries are able to hand down these indictments, but the culture doesn’t change. What are the folks on the streets saying?

PHIL PONCE: Well, I don’t know about what the folks on the street are saying, but Patrick Fitzgerald said that — and the jurors themselves said, we want to send a message that there — that political horse-trading is one thing, but when one attempts to personally benefit from that horse-trading, that’s when one crosses the line.

But Patrick Fitzgerald was very candid in saying that the culture in this state, as you point out, heretofore has been one that sees corruption on an all-too-regular basis, and that he hopes that, maybe this time, a politician, he or she will know that, if they try to squeeze money out of somebody in exchange for — in exchange for a political deal or an appointment with the government, we will be watching, and in the case of the FBI, potentially listening.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Phil Ponce of WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight,” thanks so much for joining us.

PHIL PONCE: My pleasure.