Jurors in the Rod Blagojevich case got a crash course in the former governor's impeachment escape plans today, as behind the scenes a long-awaited ruling by the Supreme Court left spectators, attorneys, and even the defendants wondering what impact the court's decision would have on Illinois' most notorious prosecution for public corruption.
The high court did not strike the so-called "honest services" statute down in its entirety. But, writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said the law must be limited to cases involving bribery or kickbacks.
Almost immediately, attorneys for Blagojevich asked the judge for a halt in the proceedings, where former chief of staff John Harris is in his third day of testimony.
"Harris testifies to alleged honest services charges which may seriously impact the jury," lawyer Sam Adam declared in a hastily prepared motion. "Further testimony at this juncture would be improper."
But Judge James Zagel was not moved by Adam's argument. He told the attorneys that his cursory reading of the court's opinion indicated, "it may not offer a lot of hope for you."
"The evidence is going to come in anyway, which is why I'm not stopping," Zagel said. "I do not believe that they have declared (honest services) unconstitutional on its face. And it would not change the nature of this testimony."
The attorneys immediately filed a second motion, asking the judge to at least temporarily halt the proceedings.
"We would just like a little time to see whether applies to this case," said defense attorney Sam Adam, Jr. "How it applies to this case, whether or not there are counts that are out, or if all the counts are in."
Adam said the sheer volume of the evidence should be a factor.
"This is a case where, as you know, there are about five million pages of documents; as you have heard, hours upon hours of tapes; just to see if this plays a role," he said.
Most legal experts believe it will have little if any impact on the former governor's case. The charges against Blagojevich do involve allegations of bribery and kickbacks. And last February, when it was obvious that the honest services statute would likely be stricken down, prosecutors re-indicted the former governor on secondary charges which would still apply, even if the controversial statute had been declared unconstitutional in its entirety.
"They're still charging conspiracy," says Kent College of Law professor Richard Kling. "They're still charging fraud. The jury's still going to get the instruction whether he committed the offenses that he's charged with. And that's what he's on trial for."
The Blagojevich Escape Route
Thursday's testimony included a new allegation, that Blagojevich planned an escape route for himself, fearing that the legislature was preparing to impeach him.
Harris testified that the governor considered the possibility of appointing his deputy Louanner Peters to the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama, planning to have her resign the seat if he sensed impeachment proceedings were imminent. Under the plan, Harris said, Blagojevich would have then appointed himself to the newly vacated position.
"Could you count on Louanner if things got hot?" Blagojevich is heard asking Harris, in a conversation secretly recorded November 11, 2008. "To give that up, and let me parachute over there?"
He later outlines the plan to his brother Robert, who immediately expresses doubt.
"How do you pull that off?" Robert asks. "That's ugly!"
"What's uglier?" the governor replies. "That, or being impeached? I'm better off finishing off that way, than just getting kicked out of office."
Likely the president knew about the Jarrett deal
Earlier, Blagojevich gets word that President-elect Obama would be "very pleased" if he appointed his friend Valerie Jarrett to his Senate seat, and that he would be "thankful and appreciative."
"Ok, we know he wants her," and incredulous Blagojevich says. "They're not willing to give me anything. Appreciative? F*** them!"
Harris, explaining the tapes, testified that he believed Obama knew Blagojevich wanted a Cabinet position in exchange for appointing Jarrett to the Senate seat. Defense lawyers say that testimony contradicts the government's previous statements that Obama knew nothing about the dealmaking.
Other tapes revealed:
- Blagojevich hoped to found a non-profit which would advance issues he was interested in, and agency where he would work and hopefully oay himself a large salary. He wanted Obama to convince billionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to donate "10 to 15 million" to endow the endeavor in exchange for appointing Jarrett to the Senate seat.
- Blagojevich absolutely did not want to appoint Jesse Jackson Jr. to the seat, and thought Obama shared his view. "It's a repugnant thought to me," he said. "I don't believe him; I don't trust him; he's a bad guy."
- Blagojevich thought that if he appointed himself Senator, he might draw some benefit in the ongoing federal investigation. He felt it might even put him in a position to put pressure on the justice department to back off.
- At the same time, he considered the possibility of vetting Jarrett and asking her if, as a condition of her appointment, she would publicly oppose his impeachment.
- Blagojevich expressed regret at the pain he had caused his family. "I've got this scrutiny going on ... lawyers to pay for. How am I going to send my kids to college?"
- At one point, the President-elect sends words that they would be happy with four other possible Senate candidates: Jesse Jackson Jr., Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, Comptroller Dan Hynes, or Obama's friend Tammy Duckworth, the director of Veteran's Affairs for Illinois.
- Blagojevich blamed Obama for some of his legal troubles, saying the Obama camp had successfully convinced the Chicago media to make Tony Rezko a bigger issue for him.