FBI recordings of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich's phone calls are giving jurors in his federal corruption trial — and anyone else who wants to listen online — glimpses into how he operated.
Conversations introduced as evidence reveal him using profanity frequently, pressing aides to amass campaign donations before a state ethics law limiting contributions took effect and warning those aides to be careful about how they solicit money from people who might benefit from his actions as governor.
For example, in a November 2008 conversation, Blagojevich advises his brother Robert, who also is on trial, to "be real careful" about asking a potential donor for money because "the FBI went to see" the man.
About 500 hours of conversations were secretly recorded; transcripts and audio of those used as evidence in the trial are available at usdoj.gov/usao/iln.
Albert Alschuler, a law professor at Northwestern University, says the recordings are an "enormously effective" part of the government's case. "Once you hear those tapes," he says, "it sure looks like Blagojevich is engaging in quid pro quo ... The strongest witness against Rod Blagojevich is Rod Blagojevich."
Blagojevich has long insisted the recordings would prove he's not guilty of federal corruption charges. He told USA TODAY in a September interview that he hoped all the tapes would be played in court. "When all of the evidence is heard and all of those tapes are heard," he said, "I think the truth will be pretty clear."
Blagojevich, 53, a Democrat, was arrested in December 2008 and removed from office in January 2009. He faces 24 counts of racketeering, wire fraud, attempted extortion, bribery, conspiracy and false statements. Maximum penalties range from five to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count.
The trial began June 3 and is likely to last three or four months. Both Blagojevich brothers have pleaded not guilty.
Some of the recordings are mundane. In a conversation with former chief of staff Alonzo Monk, a government witness, Blagojevich mentions that he "just got back from a haircut." In another, Robert Blagojevich says that a woman he met admires the brothers' abundant hair.
Other calls convey the urgency of Blagojevich's efforts to collect campaign cash before the ethics law took effect Jan. 1, 2009. "Just find some people we can call and say, 'Look, can you send us $5,000, can you send us whatever?' You follow me?" Rod Blagojevich told his brother in December 2008.
When Robert Blagojevich told his brother they might not reach a $4 million fundraising goal, the former governor said, "You gotta somehow get there."
Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association, a non-partisan Illinois watchdog group, is in the courtroom daily and says the tapes "are a wonderful teaching tool because every resident of Illinois can hear ... how their government was conducted."
Jurors listen intently to the tapes, he says, but it's "too early to know how important they are" to the prosecution's case.