The federal corruption trial of Rod Blagojevich— ousted Illinois governor, Elvis impersonator and reality TV star — will provide a summer's worth of legal and political theater.
The trial is scheduled to begin Thursday and will last three or four months. It will include testimony from Blagojevich and former aides cooperating with prosecutors, the courtroom airing of recorded calls between Blagojevich and his associates and a jury that will be anonymous until after the verdict.
"The breadth of the alleged corruption is breathtaking," says Ron Safer, a Chicago defense lawyer and former assistant U.S. attorney. "It will be shocking."
Blagojevich, a Democrat, was arrested in December 2008 for allegedly trying to sell Obama's U.S. Senate seat. He was impeached and removed from office in January 2009. Since then, he has proclaimed his innocence and displayed his quirky personality on a national stage. He wrote his memoirs, hosts a weekly radio show, appeared on TV talk shows such as Ellen and The View and was fired by Donald Trump on Celebrity Apprentice.
His high profile is an unusual tactic that might backfire, says Patrick Collins, a Chicago lawyer and former federal prosecutor. "It's unprecedented in the annals of Chicago public corruption cases," says Collins, who helped send Blagojevich's predecessor as governor, Republican George Ryan, to prison for corruption. "It certainly runs the risk of giving the government more fodder for cross-examination."
University of Illinois law professor Andrew Leipold says Blagojevich's TV appearances might prompt jurors to conclude he's "a little wacky, which is a bad impression to create when your defense turns on your credibility."
In his 2009 memoirs, The Governor, Blagojevich said he sought the spotlight because it was "unbearable to sit silently back and not assert the truth." If he didn't defend himself, he wrote, he would be "tainted with the brush of silence."
Blagojevich Faces 24 Corruption ChargesBlagojevich, 53, also has aimed harsh language at U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who said at a news conference the day of the arrest that he was intervening in a "political corruption crime spree" that would "make Lincoln roll over in his grave."
At an April news conference, Blagojevich called federal prosecutors "cowards and liars" and challenged Fitzgerald to be "man enough" to show up for a preliminary court hearing. Fitzgerald rarely appears in court; his office would not comment on the trial.
Blagojevich 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.
Besides the alleged sale of the Senate seat, Blagojevich is accused of manipulating state government to enrich himself and his family, using his authority to withhold funding for a children's hospital until one of its executives would write his campaign a $50,000 check and trying to intimidate the Chicago Tribune into firing editorial writers who had criticized him.
Blagojevich's lawyers have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to delay the trial until it rules on a challenge to a federal fraud statute that makes it a crime for government or corporate officials to deprive the public of their "honest services." The law is a basis for some of the charges against Blagojevich. U.S. District Judge James Zagel, who will preside over the trial, denied a similar request, calling it a "red herring."
Blagojevich lawyer Sam Adam Jr. did not respond to a request for comment. Last week, his lawyers again sought to delay the trial.
Cindi Canary of the non-partisan Illinois Campaign for Political Reform says the trial will be painful for Illinois residents who are weary of the state's reputation for political corruption.
She says the trial could reinforce the view that "no matter who we elect, they're not going to be accountable" or could be "a cleansing" that "renews efforts to create a healthy government."