Blagojevich defense gets to question key witness
CHICAGO — The defense finally gets its chance today to question a key prosecution witness in Rod Blagojevich's corruption trial who claims the ousted Illinois governor wanted to parlay his power to fill Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat into a high-paying job.
Blagojevich's one-time chief of staff John Harris testified for four straight days last week as prosecutors tried to show jurors that Blagojevich sought cash and a well-paying job for his decisions as Illinois governor.
Harris told jurors he and his then-boss, who as governor could name Obama's successor, repeatedly discussed in 2008 how they could levy that power to get Blagojevich a top government or private-sector job.
When the impeached governor's attorneys begin questioning Harris, they will have to poke holes not only in Harris' testimony but in his interpretation of several potentially damaging wiretap recordings played in court.
In one played Thursday, Blagojevich sounded bitter when told he would receive thanks — but nothing else — from Obama in return for naming one of the newly elected president's friends, Valerie Jarrett, to the Senate. Blagojevich had hoped for a job offer, possibly a Cabinet post.
"They're not willing to give me anything but appreciation. (Expletive) them," Blagojevich said on the tape.
After the defense finishes questioning Harris, which could take a day or more, prosecutors have told Judge James Zagel they plan to call witness Tom Balanoff, a union official who Blagojevich believed was an Obama emissary.
Balanoff's name also came up during the weekend when Democratic Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias said he'd been subpoenaed by Blagojevich's lawyers. The first-term Illinois treasurer is locked in a contentious race for Obama's old seat with Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk.
Giannoulias told The Associated Press on Sunday that he introduced Jarrett to Balanoff after Balanoff reached out to him. He also said he doesn't expect to be called to testify.
Giannoulias' name had been briefly mentioned during last week's testimony when Harris was heard on the federal wiretaps mentioning that Giannoulias had called about the Senate seat on behalf of someone else. Blagojevich is heard telling Harris not to meet with Giannoulias about the matter.
Blagojevich, 53, has pleaded not guilty to charges he schemed to get a large payoff, a high-paying job after he left office or a big campaign contribution in exchange for the Senate seat. He also has pleaded not guilty to conspiring to launch a racketeering scheme using the power of the governor's office.
In some of the recordings, Blagojevich sounds excited, frantic or suddenly anxious about the prospect of landing a job for the Senate seat.
In a moment of introspection, he tells Harris he's sorry his actions as governor have made his wife and children "vulnerable." He cites mounting legal bills amid the federal investigation and concerns about how to pay college tuition.
"It's important to me to make a lot of money," he says, the suddenly turning morose. "That's the biggest (expletive) downside. Never again will I (mess things up for) ... my kids, family. I've got to fix this."
If convicted, Blagojevich could face up to $6 million in fines and a sentence of 415 years in prison, although he is certain to get much less time under federal guidelines.
His brother, Robert Blagojevich, 54, has pleaded not guilty to taking part in the alleged scheme to sell or trade the Senate seat. He also has pleaded not guilty to conspiring to put illegal pressure on a potential campaign donor, a racetrack owner who wanted Blagojevich to sign beneficial legislation.
Associated Press Writer Deanna Bellandi contributed to this report.