Prosecutors Urge Appeals Court to Reject Blagojevich Motion for New Trial

Former Illinois governor is serving 14 year sentence in Colorado on 2011 corruption conviction

In a document filed with the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals minutes before a court-imposed midnight deadline, federal prosecutors cited their opposition to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's appeal of his conviction on bribery and fraud charges, saying his contention that he was guilty of nothing more than political "horse trading" was an "extraordinary claim."

"No matter the price he charges, a public official who sells his office engages in crime, not politics," wrote assistant U.S. Attorney Debra Riggs Bonamici. "The verdicts were supported by abundant evidence, and the defendant received a fair trial."

The court filing cites extensive argument concerning Blagojevich's attempts to "sell" the Senate seat of then president-elect Barack Obama. Among the activities for which the former governor was convicted was his attempt to seek funding of a non-profit organization which he hoped to run after leaving the governor's office.

"There is no basis for arguing that Blagojevich was entitled to exchange the Senate appointment for millions of dollars -- regardless of how the money was to be used," Bonamici wrote, adding that "evidence showing that Blagojevich intended to to defraud the people of his honest services by obtaining a bribe in exchange for the Senate appointment was bountiful."

She went on to argue that Blagojevich was not guilty of merely technical violations of the rules when he sought a reward for appointing Obama's friend Valerie Jarrett to the Senate seat.

"The evidence amply proved that Blagojevich sought to exchange official acts for money, property, and things of value, the evidence was sufficient to permit the jury to find the defendant’s guilt on all of the charged offenses," Bonamici wrote. "The fact that these things were sought for Blagojevich’s own benefit is evidence of his criminal intent. And that evidence was overwhelming."

"Here, the evidence overwhelmingly showed, in contrast, that from the very beginning Blagojevich’s primary interest in making the appointment was what he could personally get in return that would alleviate some of the many legal, financial, and political difficulties he faced at the time."

At one point on the undercover recordings, Blagojevich explores the possibility of seeking a cabinet position in exchange for Jarrett's appointment, possibly as Secretary of Health and Human Services. The government argues that that was hardly in the public's interest, as Blagojevich argued in his appeal.

"Not surprisingly," Bonamici declared, "Blagojevich offers no authority for the proposition that belief in one’s qualifications for a particular job excuses an attempt to obtain that job through fraud, bribery, or extortion."

"Whatever Blagojevich’s views of his own qualifications, the intercepted calls made clear that his priority in selecting Obama’s replacement was to benefit himself and his family -- legally, personally, and politically, "in that order" -- not to benefit the public."

The government argues that Blagojevich deliberately tried to mislead the voters and even his own advisors about his intentions in filling the Obama seat.

"There was abundant evidence of deception and misrepresentation by Blagojevich, and the jury was fully equipped to determine the true nature of Blagojevich’s conduct and intent."

Prosecutors wrote extensively about the efforts by representatives of the Indian-American community to seek the appointment of then-congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. to the Senate seat in exchange for more than one million dollars in contributions to the Blagojevich campaign fund. They note that the former governor seemed actively engaged in the idea, even going so far as to ask his brother to meet with an emissary, Jackson friend Raghu Nayak.

Bonamici noted that Blagojevich called the meeting off when he learned that he had likely been the subject of undercover recordings facilitated by a previously trusted aide.

""The cancellation -- precipitated by reports that Blagojevich’s conversations may have been recorded (and thus that law enforcement agents may be aware of his plans) -- was powerful evidence of Blagojevich’s consciousness of guilt and intent to avoid detection by law enforcement," she wrote. "The jury was entitled to find that, had the meeting been entirely on the up and up as Blagojevich contended, there would have been no reason to cancel the meeting."

One of the most controversial aspects of Blagojevich's conviction was Judge James Zagel's repeated rulings barring the former governor from arguing to the jury that he believed all of his actions had been legal. But the prosecutors argue those prohibitions were absolutely correct.

"None of the charges ... required proof that defendant knew his actions were illegal," Bonamici writes. "Thus, testimony that defendant believed his actions were legal (or did not know his actions were illegal) was irrelevant to any issue in the case."

"Moreover, the testimony defendant proposed was inconsistent with his own testimony, recorded statements, and public comments, indicating that he knew he could not exchange official acts for personal benefits," the prosecutors argue.

"In light of this testimony, vague and general testimony that defendant “believed that his conduct was legal” posed a serious risk of hopelessly confusing and misleading the jury."

Indeed, the prosecutors argue that even in the face of the rulings, Blagojevich made clear to the jury that he did not exchange official acts for personal benefits, or that he did not intend to do so, that he repeatedly told the jury he thought his acts were legal, and that he did not intend to exchange the Senate seat for personal financial gain.

"If believed, any of this testimony, when combined with the good faith and other instructions provided to the jury, would have pointed to acquittal," Bonamici declares. "The jury simply did not believe it."

The motion notes that while a pre-sentence report from the United States Probation Office found that the facts surrounding the purported $1.5 million Jackson bribe attempt had not been sufficiently proven, the evidence was abundant that it had, in fact, happened.

"The district court ... correctly rejected the Probation Officer’s analysis and found, based on ample evidence and consistent with the jury’s verdicts, that Blagojevich intended to accept the bribe when he sent his brother (the campaign manager) to meet Nayak (the bribe payer) and tell him that Jackson was a realistic possibility but “stuff’s gotta start happening now”—a conversation that was caught on tape."

Blagojevich is serving 14 years at a federal penitentiary in Englewood, Colorado. His attorneys have the opportunity to rebut the government's arguments one last time before the appellate court rules on the former governor's appeal. Once that's done, oral arguments on the appeal could soon follow and a ruling by the three-judge panel could happen within several months.

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