The Blago Circus and The Sensible Judge

An exquisite moment of reason seeps into Blagojevich saga

As lunatic as the Rod Blagojevich saga continues to be, there was an exquisite moment of reason and rationality in federal court Tuesday.

It did not come from the former governor and current defendant in a massive federal corruption case or from the prosecution or from the defense.

It came from the judge.

At issue was whether U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel would modify the terms of Blagojevich's bail agreement to permit him to fly to Costa Rica to -- lordy -- to film episodes of NBC's survival reality show, "I'm A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!"

Blagojevich entered the downtown courthouse the way you would expect him to: Channeling Elvis Presley, he stopped to shake the hands of any bystanders within reach, whether they had invited his overture or not. Some looked positively bewildered by his enthusiastic pumping of their un-proffered hands.

In court, it was another matter.

Blagojevich stood silent beside Sheldon Sorosky, the defense attorney whom he cannot afford to pay and on whose charity he depends.

With little equity in either of his homes, no income and $2 million frozen by the feds in his campaign fund, the former governor needs the cash -- up to $123,000 -- that NBC is offering.

The U.S. attorney's office objected. The government's lead prosecutor, Reid Schar, did what prosecutors do.

He confidently contended that the government's case was so airtight, such a slam-dunk, that Blago would literally act on the "Get Me Out of Here" motif of the show if permitted to fly to Costa Rica. Who wouldn't run away, reasoned Schar, if the feds might send him up the river for 25 to 30 years?

Blagojevich, it should be noted, has pleaded not guilty.

The defense, in turn, assured the court that the ex-gov was going nowhere except to work. And NBC was promising to hire former FBI agents to guard Blago while on location so that however long he survived the "Survivor"-type gig, he wouldn't be able to then star in "The Great Escape."

It was Judge Zagel who elegantly cut through the predictable clutter.

"If he was going to leave," said Zagel, "the last thing he would do is come before the court. Mr. Blagojevich wants to go to Costa Rica for employment . . . he is not a flight risk . . . not a danger to society."

So Zagel was going to let Blago go to Costa Rica? No.

What followed was one of the most thoughtful denials of a motion I've heard. Zagel talked about what really happens in a complex corruption case.

There comes an epiphany moment, said the judge, when a defendant will take delivery of the hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence and thousands of hours of wiretaps gathered against him. Then and "only then," said Zagel, will the accused "fully understand the jeopardy."

"It's way too soon" counseled the judge, for Blagojevich to jet off anywhere. "I don't think this defendant fully understands or could fully understand" until it happens.

What the judge also recognized was the logic of unfreezing the governor's campaign fund to pay for a legal team. Otherwise, the taxpayers would be forced to pick up the freight for a federal public defender. When that campaign cash is gone, they might still be on the hook for the balance.

Zagel's seasoned and sensible ruling came on a day when the courthouse was mourning the death of another fine judge. James B. Moran died Tuesday at 78.

Jim Moran was a gentleman and a scholar. He served as chief judge of the Northern District of Illinois from 1990-1995 and was still on the bench on senior status.

I believe if Judge Moran had been sitting in Zagel's courtroom Tuesday, there would have been an approving glint in his bright blue eyes and a slight smile beneath his snow-white beard.

The best watching the best.

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