Blago Trial: Illinois Official Says Obama Called Him About Senate Seat

Witness in Blagojevich trial testifies Obama called him about Senate seat

June 23, 2010, 4:39 PM

June 29, 2010— -- Testimony in the trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich today indicated that President Obama may have been more connected to the haggling over his Senate seat than he has previously acknowledged.

The revelations came out in the testimony of Thomas Balanoff, an official with the Service Employees International Union.

Balanoff, president of the SEIU's Local 1, testified that he was out to dinner the night before the presidential election, when his cell phone rang. The caller ID was blocked and Balanoff chose not to answer, he told the court.

Balanoff said he only later realized who had called, when he went outside to listen to the message, which said "Tom, this is Barack. Give me a call."

Later that night, when Balanoff was filing up his gas tank at a local station, Obama called again, Balanoff said. In his testimony, Balanoff said Obama told him he thought there were several good candidates for the Senate job, and that he would not be supporting anyone for the office.

But, at the same time Balanoff said Obama did mention that his friend Valerie Jarrett was interested in the job. According to Balanoff's testimony, Obama told him that he would prefer to have Jarrett work with him at the White House, but that she was qualified to be a senator.

Balanoff told Obama that he would make a pitch to then Governor Blagojevich for Jarrett's appointment.

Testimony Puts New Light on Obama's Role

Today's testimony does not directly conflict with Obama's previous statements about the dealings over his Senate seat. In December 2008, Obama said he was "appalled and disappointed" by the revelations that the Illinois governor was involved in a "pay-to-play" scheme to fill his Senate seat.

"I have never spoken to the governor on this subject. I'm confident that no representatives of mine would have any part of any deals related to this seat," Obama, then the president-elect, said at the time.

But Balanoff's recollection of the events leading up to election night does suggest that Obama may have been more directly involved, and at an earlier stage, than he ever admitted.

When ABC News' Ann Compton asked the White House about today's testimony, press secretary Robert Gibbs refused to comment.

"You're telling me about this testimony; I'm not going to get into commenting on, obviously, an ongoing -- an ongoing trial. And I -- I've -- have not had an opportunity to see that," Gibbs said.

Balanoff's testimony in court today is perhaps some of the strongest testimony to come out in the course of the trial, because of his direct interaction with Blagojevich regarding the senate seat.

Balanoff testified that when he went to talk with Blagojevich about his conversation with Obama, the former Governor almost immediately brought up the possibility of a Cabinet post for himself.

Balanoff said he understood Blagojevich's comments to mean that if he was given a job of his choice, he would choose Jarrett for the Senate seat.

"That's not going to happen," Balanoff recalled telling Blagojevich, who then asked if it was because of the on-going investigations surrounding him.

The Associated Press contributed to this report