June 18, 2010 -- The backroom deal-making of Chicago politics and the President's relationship with a convicted Chicago political fundraiser were thrust back into the spotlight this week at the corruption trial of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich.
"Blago" is on trial for allegedly conspiring with his brother Robert to squeeze kickbacks from state businesses and trade political favors for campaign contributions, including an attempt to sell President Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder.
"Everything was leveraged in terms of its benefits in terms of cash – jobs, contracts, appointments, bond deals, and legislation – all of that was bartered for campaign cash," said Andy Shaw, executive director of the Illinois Better Government Association, who said the trial offers a rare glimpse into the shady inner workings of Illinois state government.
The defense argues that the seat was not for sale, and that White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel had agreed to act as an intermediary between Blagojevich and a candidate for the seat. Blagojevich has tried to call President Obama, Emanuel and top Obama aide Valerie Jarrett as witnesses.
Federal prosecutors began to lay out the government's case with testimony from Chicago political players and charts detailing a complex web of financial transactions linking state business deals to a circle of Blagojevich insiders, including Tony Rezko, a top political fundraiser and an early patron of Obama's political career. They also played secret, profanity-laced audio recordings of Blagojevich's conversations with his advisors.
The trial, which began last week, is expected to last through the summer. Blagojevich faces 24 counts of racketeering, extortion and bribery.
Shaw notes that the prosecution, which is still in the early stages of making its case, has yet to connect the dots directly to the former governor, though jurors did hear testimony from an IRS investigator who had traced an alleged kickback to Blagojevich's wife's real estate firm.
Rezko is a central figure in the government's conspiracy case. His relationship with Obama was highlighted this week when Joseph Aramanda, the owner of a Chicago pizza business, took the stand to detail how Rezko arranged for him to receive a $250,000 "finder's fee" from a state teacher's pension system investment deal, and then instructed him to use the money to make a $10,000 contribution to Obama's presidential campaign. Prosecutors say that Aramanda never performed any work on the deal, and that most of the money was funneled to Rezko, who used it to pay off debts.
Rezko raised tens of thousands of dollars for Obama's senate and Presidential campaigns. Obama was never implicated in the kickback scheme and his presidential campaign donated the Rezko-linked contributions to charity in 2008.
The judge has rebuffed an attempt by Blagojevich's attorneys to drag President Obama to the stand, refusing to issue a subpoena. White House aides Jarrett and Emmanuel could potentially testify, however. Rezko was convicted in 2008 on corruption charges and is not expected to be called by prosecutors, who have reportedly concluded that it would be risky to put him on the stand.
The other key figure in the prosecution's case – Blagojevich fundraiser and confidante Chris Kelly -- was under indictment when he died last year of an apparent drug overdose.
The Secret Blago Tapes
Blagojevich has steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout the whole legal saga, proclaiming that only a full release of the government's secret audio recordings would provide a complete picture, and ultimately exonerate him.
Cindy Canary of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a non-partisan advocacy group that tracks the influence of money on state politics, said the often profane recordings released so far have done little to portray Blagojevich in a positive light.
In one of the recordings, Blagojevich can be heard advising his chief of staff Alonzo "Lon" Monk, now the prosecution's star witness, in an apparent effort to get a campaign contribution from a horse race track owner who was lobbying Blagojevich to sign legislation that would be favorable to his industry.
Monk, apparently sensitive to the track owner's concern about the appearance of a quid-pro-quo, says "I wanna go to him [the track owner] without crossing the line and say, 'Give us the f___king money.' "
Blagojevich and Monk can then be heard discussing the timing the bill's signing and possibility of signing it with a group of other bills.
"He'd like some separation between that [the donation] and signing the bill," asks Blagojevich. "Definite separation," says Monk.
"A week," replies Blagojevich.
"It's so brazen and outright – it's just 'let's scam the state of Illinois, and he does not have a good word to say about anybody."