CHICAGO (AP) — An attorney for Rod Blagojevich declared Tuesday that the former Illinois governor is an honest man who “didn’t take a dime” of illegal money and simply trusted the wrong people to handle his fundraising before he was ousted by corruption allegations.
In a theatrical opening statement, attorney Sam Adam Jr. outlined for the first time how the defense plans to fight charges that Blagojevich tried to sell President Barack Obama’s old Senate seat and sought to use his office to line his pockets and those of insiders.
“The guy ain’t corrupt,” said Adam, whose remarks seemed at times more like a tent revival than a courtroom presentation. He said Blagojevich and his wife will both take the stand.
Adam walked briskly back and forth across the courtroom, alternately shouted and whispered, and pointed his finger with his arm extended. He said Blagojevich was fooled by people close to him and was a poor judge of their character.
“Not a single penny” of ill-gotten money went into Blagojevich’s campaign fund or the former governor’s own pockets, he said.
“You have to be comatose not to figure out how to get a dollar out of $52 billion,” Adam said, referring to the Illinois state budget. “But who didn’t? Him!” he said indicating his client.
Hours earlier, a federal prosecutor told jurors that Blagojevich conducted “a series of illegal shakedowns” in which entities that got state funding would also contribute to his campaign. He allegedly lied to the FBI when questioned about his fundraising activities.
And when Obama was elected — an event that empowered the governor to appoint Obama’s successor in the Senate — Blagojevich’s “golden ticket arrived,” prosecutor Carrie E. Hamilton said.
If convicted, Blagojevich could receive up to 415 years in prison and fines totaling $6 million.
Adam said the FBI has being trying for years to find evidence that Blagojevich took a bribe.
“The same people who are chasing bin Laden were chasing him,” Adam said. “And you know how many illegal accounts they found — none. He’s broke.”
He said Blagojevich was the dupe of sinister members of his inner circle, comparing fundraiser Tony Rezko to Bernie Madoff. Rezko was later convicted of influence peddling, skimming campaign contributions and seeking personal kickbacks from companies.
“The Bernie Madoff of Chicago fooled everybody, with all due respect, governor, including you.” He described key witness Stuart Levine, a former millionaire who admitted spending years doing corrupt deals and a wide variety of drugs, as the most corrupt of all.
“The king of sleaze knighted Stuart Levine — Sir Stuart Levine.”
Blagojevich thought Rezko knew campaign laws because he was so good at raising money, Adam said.
Blagojevich never attempted to sell Obama’s Senate seat and only wanted to gain leverage to improve the lives of his constituents, he added. “There was nobody buying or selling nothing,” Adam said.
The prosecution methodically laid out what she called a pattern of lying, scheming and extortion that consumed the former governor’s time in office, and intensified as his personal financial troubles deepened.
“When he was supposed to be asking, ‘What about the people of Illinois,’ he was asking, ‘What about me?'” Hamilton said in her opening statement. “In each one of these shakedowns, the message was clear …. ‘Pay up or no state action.'”
When he entered the courthouse earlier in the day, an upbeat Blagojevich promised that the public would soon hear “all the things I’ve been dying to tell you for the last year and a half.”
As the prosecutor spoke, the former governor sat listening with his head down, scribbling notes.
Adam is best known for his spirited and successful defense of R&B star R. Kelly two years ago. After Adam finished his statement, Judge James B. Zagel warned the young defense attorney about his animated style: “I don’t mind if you yell at the jury. If you yell that way at a witness, I’ll sit you down.”
The former governor is standing trial alongside his brother, Robert Blagojevich, a 54-year-old Nashville, Tenn., businessman. He’s accused of taking part in the alleged plan to sell the Senate seat and plotting to squeeze a racetrack owner for a hefty campaign contribution.
Attorney Michael Ettinger reminded jurors that Robert Blagojevich is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army reserve who served in a missile unit based in Germany and stayed in the reserves for 16 years.
“Why am I telling you this? Because Robert Blagojevich … is not about money,” Ettinger said.
Earlier Tuesday, the jury was sworn in by Judge James B. Zagel. The panel has 11 women and seven men, including alternates. The trial could last four months.
On Wednesday, prosecutors plan to call their first witness, FBI agent Dan Cain, who for years has led the investigation that resulted in Rezko’s conviction and now the racketeering charges against Blagojevich.
Cain is due to be followed by Alonzo “Lon” Monk, Blagojevich’s law school roommate and later his top aide and campaign manager.
Monk has pleaded guilty to charges he conspired to shake down racetrack owner John Johnson for a campaign contribution. He has agreed to testify in return for a lenient sentence.