Blagojevich Blasts Prosecutors Over Kelly's Death

"He chose to tell the truth and refused to lie about me," Blagojevich said. "Sadly, he took his life."

By Don Babwin
|  Thursday, Sep 17, 2009  |  Updated 11:27 AM CDT
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Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's seems to imply that Kelly died for him.

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To hear ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tell it, his war with federal prosecutors now has a casualty.

In the days since a friend and fundraiser died in an apparent suicide, Blagojevich has seized the death as a chance to give the public — and ultimately potential jurors in his corruption case — an example of what he says are the extreme lengths prosecutors will go to put him behind bars.

In interview after interview, Blagojevich, who is promoting his book, "The Governor," has talked about the intense pressure Christopher Kelly was under "to lie about me."

Helping prosecutors might mean that Kelly, who was on his way to prison for tax fraud and was also charged in the corruption case involving Blagojevich, would see his own sentence reduced, Blagojevich said. Refuse and prosecutors would keep coming after him, the former governor claimed.

"He chose to tell the truth and refused to lie about me," Blagojevich said in one interview. "Sadly, he took his life."

Kelly, 51, a roofing contractor from Chicago's southern suburbs who had raised millions for Blagojevich's campaigns, died Saturday, hours after a suspected overdose, authorities said. It could take up to six weeks to get the results of toxicology tests to determine an exact cause of death.

His funeral was held Wednesday, with Blagojevich and the former governor's family in attendance.

Kelly had been due to enter prison this Friday to start a three-year sentence for tax fraud, and was expected to be sentenced to five more years after pleading guilty last Tuesday to an $8.5 million fraud against two airlines for roofing work. Police said he tried to take his own life that Tuesday night, but called friends for help.

He also had been due to go on trial in June alongside Blagojevich, who is accused of trying to sell or trade President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat. The former governor denies any wrongdoing.

Kelly faced other pressures as well: He was estranged from his wife, had long battled alcohol, was deeply in debt and his house was in foreclosure.

But Blagojevich quickly turned Kelly's tragedy into an opportunity to blast the prosecutors he'll face at his own trial — and has made no secret that both his book and his comments since Kelly's death are aimed at getting out his side of the story.

He's stopped short of directly blaming U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald for Kelly's death, but "wants people to ask what is going on here that would motivate somebody to commit suicide," his publicist, Glenn Selig, said.

Blagojevich says he is simply "putting together facts as they've emerged."

"I've been asking people to take a closer look at this since it all started and nothing's changed other than a good friend of mine has taken his life and has left three little girls without their father," Blagojevich told The Associated Press.

Fitzgerald's spokesman, Randall Samborn, would not discuss Kelly's death or Blagojevich's comments about pressure prosecutors may have put on Kelly.

Those familiar with the criminal justice system say it is routine to put pressure on defendants to get them to cooperate, to warn them that they are facing more jail time or additional charges if they don't. But rarely do defendants kill themselves.

"I'm positive nobody anticipated him committing suicide," said Larry Beaumont, a defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor who represented a possible witness against Kelly in the roofing case. "These are good people doing these prosecutions."

Although Blagojevich dismisses the suggestion that he's trying to reach potential jurors, a former federal prosecutor says that's exactly what is going on.

"Clearly he's attempting to appeal to a segment of the population who may be called to jury duty who are more likely to accept the notion of an overreaching federal government," said Patrick Collins, who prosecuted the case that sent former Gov. George Ryan to prison for six years for corruption.

It's also clear Blagojevich is trying to raise questions about the U.S. Attorney's office and Fitzgerald, who has earned a reputation as one of the most relentless prosecutors in the nation.

When Ryan was on trial, his former aide, Scott Fawell, agreed to testify after Fitzgerald's office threatened to prosecute his fiancee, who also was Fawell's former administrative assistant. In exchange for his testimony, prosecutors agreed to a deal for his fiancee and to reduce Fawell's prison sentence.

"The government will not accept the word no," said Fawell, who served more than five years. "When you say no, the entire wrath of the U.S. government comes down on your head and your family's head. It's the greatest pressure you can feel."

Blagojevich said that although neither of Kelly's guilty pleas called for him to cooperate with prosecutors in the case against the former governor, attorneys were not letting up.

"My accusers were not satisfied with the jail sentence that he had on those cases and they were putting pressure on him, offering possibly to reduce his sentence, I've been told by lawyers, if he would lie about me," Blagojevich told CNN.

He also suggested that prosecutors have been trying to squeeze others for information about him, including another former key fundraiser, Antoin "Tony" Rezko. Rezko refused to implicate Blagojevich in his trial that ended with his conviction on federal money-laundering, fraud and bribery charges.

Collins said he expects Blagojevich to try to, in effect, put the U.S. Attorney's Office on trial. Whether it works is another question.

"Most Illinoisans feel saturated by corruption and a little extra prosecution push may be acceptable because the problem is so serious," he said.

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