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Dispatches From the Blago Trial (Part 1)

A sort of homecoming.

Here’s some news: you can go home again.

For me it’s Chicago, and I had a fervent urge to see some of the Blagojevich trial for myself. I do not know him—most likely because I left Chicago in 1977. I had, however, known two of his predecessor governors who went to the slammer for malfeasance: Dan Walker and Otto Kerner, the second of whom I met in my mother’s living room, post-indictment. (She was not one to rush to judgment.) I did miss knowing George Ryan, the other governor currently doing time, because in addition to my having left Chicago, he was a Republican, and most of my cronies were of the other persuasion. But think about it: in the annals of white collar crime (political division), I think knowing two out of four governors who went to the cooler is … well, kind of cool. To be sure, the man in the dock is not yet wearing prison-issue orange, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and predict that his freedom will be abridged at the end of the day.

Since I don’t have the time to sit through a predicted three to four month trial (and neither do you), I asked the presiding judge, Jim Zagel (another old friend of mine), what segment of the proceedings would tell you everything you need to know—except the verdict. He said the opening statements, but I’m here a little early, for the jury selection.

Blago, as he is known (probably because his actual name is difficult to remember, harder to pronounce, and impossible to spell), has been pretty outrageous from well before the time it became apparent he would be impeached, then indicted. He definitely has the showman’s gene—though what he seems to miss (for example, when he went on Letterman) is that the joke’s on him—and he certainly has the most outrageous hair in the business. I am told that the voluminous mop, resembling glossy back road kill, is a tribute to Elvis. 

The actual charges in this case are that former Governor Blagojevich was scheming to sell or trade Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat, and that he used his powers as governor to pressure campaign contributors for money. His brother, Robert Blagojevich, is accused of helping him in his position as chairman of the Friends of Blagojevich campaign fund. His more informal title would be, I guess, Bagman. In anticipation of the brothers Blagojevich at the bar of justice, Blago’s lawyers have started to call Blago “Rod,” so as not to confuse him with “Rob.” I predict that the Rod/Rob business will not go well, particularly for those with less than perfect hearing.

(The fascinating back story to the Blagojevich duo being on trial together is that Rob is so different from Blago. Rob is missing the show-off gene, has normal hair, a Tennessee accent, and he’s a Republican. He also may be said to have been, before being enlisted in his brother’s campaign, a political virgin.)

There have also been some exciting pre-trial doings, making the brothers Blagojevich the lone two defendants. Chris Kelly committed suicide; William Cellini and Alonzo Monk agreed to plea deals; and Blago’s former chief of staff, Robert Harris, has been singing, I mean talking, with his sentence to be determined by the judge.

So, undoubtedly, the Blago trial holds the promise of being great theater. I know a judge on that federal bench who wanted this case (he didn’t get it) although his wish was expressed at a time when Edward Genson—an ace attorney considered among the bar’s most colorful and theatrical—was set to lead Blago’s defense. Alas, Genson withdrew for what some cynics assumed was Blago’s lack of funds. It was unclear at that point whether the $2.8 million from his campaign kitty could be used for his legal defense. Anyway, once Genson dropped out, Blago’s very first employer, Sheldon Sorosky, stepped in. (Hard to believe, isn’t it, that Blago is a lawyer? But so was John Mitchell.) Sorosky got off to a good start, entertainment-wise. His first public statement to the press was that Blago’s being broke “showed that he was an honest man.” Ba da bing. Somewhere along the line Sorosky was joined by two advocates named Sam Adam, pere et fils. Judge Zagel later ruled that the campaign kitty could be used—except that now it’s down to $1.4 million, and no one thinks that’s going to last very long. So the taxpayers in Illinois will pick up the rest of the tab, which the judge has limited to $110 an hour. This means that the taxpayers will be subject to their own kind of double jeopardy, having been screwed, the first time, when Defendant #1 was in office. (Rob, alas, has to pay all of his bills himself and, no matter the verdict, will probably walk away from this trial broke.)

The idea of representing Blago interests me. I was curious as to whether a celebrated lawyer would have wanted this case, so I called the most famous defense attorney whose cell phone number I could get my hands on: Martin Garbus. Garbus, who has represented clients ranging from Al Pacino to Nelson Mandela to Lenny Bruce, said he had not seen the indictment so his thoughts were based on “insufficient knowledge.” But he agreed with me that there was the appearance of Blago having his hand out, “though there were nothing more than words involved.” In any event, Garbus said this was not a case he wished he were trying.

Part of the fascination with Blago in extremis has to be his bottomless reservoir of chutzpah. What other defendant can you think of who would ask a judge for permission to leave the country to do a reality show in the jungle while preparing for trial? It was generally felt in Chicago that Blago was not grasping the seriousness of a 24-count corruption case—which he refuses to read. But because a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do, he became part of NBC’s promotion for the jungle show, “Get Me Outta Here, I’m A Celebrity.” When this promo first hit the airwaves (in April of last year) there was Blago, in a suit, not a fairy costume, flying on wires like Mary Martin in Peter Pan. In any case, when Judge Zazel declined Blago’s request to go to Costa Rica, his wife took his place in the jungle, eating tarantulas and looking like someone from the cast of “Lost.” (She is interesting, as well. Her father is a pol and her vocabulary could best be described as Navy. Or perhaps blue.)

Almost as proof that Blago is the grifter that keeps on giving, he made his appearance in mid-March on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice.” His rivals included Daryl Strawberry, Sharon Osbourne, and Cyndi Lauper—an eclectic group, to be sure. (Mr. Strawberry dallied with cocaine, Ms. Osbourne dallied with Ozzy; and Ms. Lauper has no scandal attached to her that Wikipedia knows of.) The former First Gentleman of Illinois was eliminated because he was technically-challenged—didn’t know the first thing about computers, Blackberrys, etc.

And so all this nonsense brings us to today’s jury selection. I’m reminded of a wonderful old Chicago saying (attributed to Mayor Daley the first) which goes, “I don’t wanna see nobody that nobody sent.” I expect we will be hearing from a lot of somebodies that somebody sent. 

Margo Howard is a syndicated advice columnist for Creators Syndicate and Last year, she covered the Clark Rockefeller trial for The New Republic. This is the first in a series of dispatches from the Blagojevich trial.

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