Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor serving a 14-year prison term for corruption, wants U.S. appeals court to overturn his sentence and throw out the guilty verdicts by two federal court juries.
Blagojevich, a Democrat, was arrested five years ago this week on charges he tried to trade his power to appoint a U.S. Senate successor to then-President-elect Barack Obama for campaign cash or a new job.
Impeached and removed from office by Illinois lawmakers, the ex-governor was tried on a 24-count indictment in 2010. Jurors deadlocked on all but the last charge, finding him guilty of lying to federal agents. He was retried on fewer charges the next year and convicted on 17 of 20 counts.
His lawyers today will ask a three-judge panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago to undo those outcomes, arguing that the jury wasn’t allowed to hear critical portions of secretly recorded conversations of the governor that show he was engaged in routine political deal-making, not an extortion plot.
“This is, essentially, the third bite at an apple,” Richard Kling, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, said in an interview. “The jury came to a conclusion. The judge came to a conclusion the jury is correct. The appellate court is going to have to conclude, essentially, that they were both wrong.”
Appeals courts typically defer to trial judges’ rulings on what evidence to admit and how to punish somebody found guilty, setting a high bar for a defendant seeking reversal, Hugh Mundy, who teaches at Chicago’s John Marshall Law School, said in an interview.
A former congressman from Chicago, Blagojevich, 57, was elected governor in 2002 and 2006, succeeding Republican George H. Ryan, who was convicted in an unrelated corruption case in 2006 and sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison. Ryan’s post-trial appeals were unsuccessful.
Blagojevich was arrested in December 2008, six months after adviser and fund raiser Antoin “Tony” Rezko, who also collected campaign cash for Obama, was found guilty of taking part in a scheme to get kickbacks for influencing awards of state business. He is serving a 10 1/2 sentence at a U.S. prison in Pekin, Illinois.
Blagojevich was sent to a low-security federal lockup in Littleton, Colorado, and won’t be at today’s arguments.
“The central charge against Blagojevich -- that he attempted to sell Barack Obama’s old Senate seat -- is false,” defense lawyers said in an appeal filing in July.
Rather than proving a crime, “the evidence showed that Blagojevich attempted to make a political deal with Obama where Blagojevich would appoint Obama’s choice for the Senate and in exchange, Obama would make Blagojevich part of his administration,” the ex-governor’s attorneys said then.
The Senate-seat allegations were just part of the case against Blagojevich. Then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, when he announced the arrest, said the governor had been on a public corruption “crime spree.”
Blagojevich was accused of tying to official acts campaign contributions sought from a racetrack operator, executives at a children’s hospital and a road-paving trade association and the brother of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
While jurors in the second trial failed to reach a decision on two counts and acquitted him on a third, the panel found Blagojevich guilty of wire fraud, attempted extortion, conspiracy to commit extortion, conspiracy to solicit a bribe and bribe solicitation.
Among those crimes, he was convicted for advancing a scheme to get $1.5 million in campaign money offered by supporters of then-U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. of Chicago, who wanted him to be appointed Obama’s successor in the Senate. The job went to one-time state Attorney General Roland Burris.
Jackson and the mayor were defense witnesses at the second trial. Blagojevich testified, too.
Evidence against him included testimony by people who pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government’s probe, as well as recordings from wiretaps on Blagojevich phones and a microphone planted at his campaign office.
U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel, who presided over both trials, sentenced Blagojevich to 14 years in prison in December 2011.
Blagojevich’s lawyers maintain the evidence doesn’t prove the governor committed crimes.
Zagel erred in not letting jurors hear most of the recordings the defense sought to play, the defense attorneys argue, including some they said proves their client was trying to strike a deal with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan to advance his legislative agenda in exchange for appointing the speaker’s daughter, state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, to the Senate seat.
The governor’s attorneys said the kind of bartering prosecutors say constituted crimes is no different than typical political horse-trading.
Prosecutors responded that the defense offered no evidence to support its claims.
“No matter the price he charges, a public official who sells his office engages in crime, not politics,” they said in a court filing. “The verdicts were supported by abundant evidence and the defendant received a fair trial.”
To reverse any part of the related guilty verdicts, the appeals court would need to find Zagel abused his discretion to keep those recordings from the jury and that those rulings adversely affected the outcome of the trial, Mundy, the John Marshall law professor said.
“That’s a high bar stacked upon a high bar,” Mundy said.
The ex-governor also wants the appeals court to vacate the sentence, asserting it’s derived from improper calculations from advisory guidelines and that Blagojevich shouldn’t have been classified a “leader/organizer” in the plot that ensnared others on his staff.
“Blagojevich constantly sought and relied on advice from aides, advisers, consultants, friends and political allies,” his attorneys said.
Zagel could have sentenced Blagojevich to an even longer term and still been within the applicable guidelines range, prosecutors countered, adding that the punishment was just.
“Given that the sentence was within the guidelines, it’s a hard sell,” Kling, the Chicago-Kent law professor, said of the governor’s bid for reduced time. Each side has 30 minutes to argue its case.
The case is U.S. v. Blagojevich, 11-3853, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (Chicago).
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