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Dispatches From the Blago Trial (Part 3)

Defense lawyers say the darndest things.

Click here to read Margo Howard’s first dispatch from the Blagojevich trial. Click here to read her second.

A note about Mrs. Blagojevich and the bathroom, and Mrs. B. and the courtroom. I encountered her in the loo again, only there were more people than last time. I did hear her say, once more, that it’s tough to hear people tell lies about you. I guess that’s how she responds to “how are you?” Also, I wrote yesterday that she would not be allowed in the courtroom once the trial began because she would be a witness. Someone tied to the case said she would, indeed, be allowed to attend sessions unless, due to certain testimony, the prosecution asks that she leave. This person said, “They’re playing it loose on this one.” Patti Blagojevich, by the way, is thin and tall, and reminded me of a wholesome-looking pole dancer. Her brother Rich Mell, who was with her in court, looks surprisingly like he could be Blago’s brother. But he really looks like a young Wayne Newton with black hair. Strangely (to me) the bagman brother is quite handsome with fine features and graying hair. Now that I’m done with how everybody looks, here’s what happened during the openings statements—all three of them.

The opening statement for the government was made by Carrie Hamilton. The blonde, pony-tailed assistant U.S. Attorney spoke clearly, with no flourishes, and began by talking about Children’s Memorial Hospital and underprivileged children. She stated that Blago offered state funds … but that if he helped the hospital, the hospital would have to help him: “It was time for the hospital president to raise money. His brother [Rob] asked.” There was no movement, so he put the funds on hold. Then Hamilton used the word “shakedown.” Blago, she said, made his decisions regarding state money based on how much money there was for his benefit or that of his friends.

Mentioning other instances of shakedowns, she found her leitmotif: “What about me?”

This three word question is essentially what Blago asked anybody needing state help: schools seeking grant money, the horse racing industry. For Obama’s seat, that which has been referred to in the wiretaps as “f---ing golden,” Blago wanted more than just the $100,000 “campaign contributions” he got elsewhere; he wanted over $1 million … or a prestigious job for himself. What he had in mind was the cabinet level post of Health and Human Services. Hamilton pointed out that Blago didn’t do this alone. “And you will hear from some of those people who helped,” she said, “a few of which have already pleaded guilty.”

Tony Rezko, she said, was one of those in on the action; he was the fixer for Bear Stearns handling a $10 billion bond issue for the state pension board. That deal had been fixed so that Blago’s share was $500,000. That money was to be distributed after Blago left office. She went on to say that Patti got $150,000 from Rezko plus $12,500 a month from Rezko’s real estate firm for doing nothing. Rezko was also giving cash to Lon Monk (a former Blago chief of staff) who would then find ways to funnel cash to the inner circle. (Stuart Levine, a government witness in the case who was indicted on other charges in 2005, was said to be in on this part of the operation.)

What other injustices were committed? Before his reelection, Blago tried to shake down Congressman Rahm Emanuel for a school he wanted funded. Emanuel was told that his “wealthy brother” (that would be Ari, the Hollywood agent) would need to have a fundraiser. The answer was no, so the grant money for the school was slowed up to be paid out over time.

There was also the matter of the $1.8 billion for tollway improvement. Blago made it known that he had additional billions to commit to the tollway project if interested parties were willing to cough up some more campaign money. Then there was the horse racing industry bill awaiting Blago’s signature. Every day it went unsigned cost the track people $9,000. At this point, he sent Monk to John Johnson (the industry head) to ask for a “contribution” of $100K. The request was denied.

In 2008 Blago got the idea he might get fingered for his shady dealings. Who was behind this? The Chicago Tribune. (You should know that the Tribune Co. owned the Chicago Cubs. Wrigley Field was possibly to be sold for millions of dollars.) Blago needed to get the negative editorials stopped. This being a newspaper, he did not ask for a payoff … he asked that the editorial writers be fired! John Harris, Monk’s replacement as chief of staff, was sent to make the unusual shakedown request (though he backed out at the last minute, thinking it too risky).

Blago’s $170,000 salary was inadequate to meet the family’s credit card debt that was building. This did not include mortgage expenses, etc., and Blago could not use campaign fund money. In any case, Lady Luck then provided “The Golden Ticket.” Nov 4, 2008, Obama wins the presidency—ergo, his Senate replacement is to be named by the state’s governor. Now, the government tells us, Blago wanted to cash in and get something of value for himself.

Obama allegedly floated Valerie Jarrett’s name for the seat. Blago considered this—and a prestigious or high-paying job for himself. That didn’t’ work. (See Department of Health & Human Services.) Failing that, he wanted millions of dollars for an organization he would control—and be paid by. That didn’t work either. Then Jesse Jackson, Jr., came into the picture. Blago told Jackson that the price for Obama’s seat would be over $1,000,000 in campaign contributions.  

In Dec. 2008, Blago is arrested. Monk and Harris plead guilty. Some others were given immunity.

There were taps on Rob’s cell and Blago’s home line—and they’re on tape saying all sorts of incriminating things. One wonders how the two defense teams will discredit recordings of phone calls. Blago was even heard to caution his brother, “Be careful how you express that. Do it in person, not on a phone.”

Bathroom break. Next up: Robert Blagojevich’s attorney, Mike Ettinger.

How shall I put this? “Hack” I think is the word I am looking for. To begin, he bellows that his client is Retired Colonel Robert Blagojevich. And he has the honor of introducing him. “He’s innocent and he’s a great man.” Ettinger wandered back to 1776 and waxed on about what made this country great. He points out that his client was only here with his brother for four months. Oh, my. So much trouble in so little time …

“He came to help his brother.” And he’s a great baseball player. “He was a pitcher. No, wait. He was a catcher.” He joined ROTC and earned a scholarship. “Then, he met a very pretty blonde, in his opinion [!] and they married. And she made some of the decisions.”

“His dad was a soldier in WWII—field artillery.” There followed a lot of military information. The judge looked really bored. Robert gained top military clearance because he was involved with Persian missiles and in charge of three “nucular” warheads (this pronunciation no doubt a tip of the hat to George W. Bush, this Blagojevich being a Republican). When he left the service, he went to Nashville, because that’s where Julie was from, worked at a bank, but served in the reserves for 16 years. And because of the reserves, he never got to go on a vacation.

He was a trustee at the University of Tampa (they had moved with his bank), and “he gave the commencement address one year to 10,000 people.” “Give back,” was his motto. And, alas, the brothers weren’t close. Here’s where Julie comes in. When Blago’s people were indicted, arrested, or otherwise rendered useless, he asked his brother to come up and help him. Julie encouraged this because she said it would make them closer, and Robert could show his bro how capable he was. Ettinger wanted to stress that the brothers were not close. Julie even gave up her job at “the University of Vanderbilt.” Rob was the kind of person who volunteered to help Katrina victims, and was involved with the Red Cross and the YMCA because he knew how to fundraise.

But, his lawyer stressed, “Robert followed the rules.” Robert had nothing to do with who would replace Obama. His brother, in fact, changed his mind eight times a day. His choices moved from Oprah to Valerie Jarret to Barry Chico, whoever he is. Oh, and Rob and Julie both love Starbucks … and she knits.

Bathroom break again. Now comes Blago’s lead lawyer, Sam Adam, Jr. I have never seen anyone move from whispering to hollering and intermittently jumping around quite like he does. He tries humor. He tries self-deprecation. He gingerly mock insults his client. He tells us Blago “is as honest as the day is long.” My guess would be Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. 

“He is broke,” Adam tell us. “He didn’t take a dime. The reason? He isn’t corrupt. The same people chasing bin Laden are chasing him.”

If the government’s mantra is “What about me?,” Sam Adam’s is “Follow the money.”

“Tony Rezko is the Bernie Madoff of Chicago. He even fooled Blago!” Now a little diversion to Rezko and his real estate, how he raised money for Bush, Durbin, and Obama, “and was named Arab-American businessman of the decade! And he owns Papa John’s everywhere!” Fooled everybody, that guy, including the governor. The problem is, Adam whispers, “Blago trusted the wrong people.”

Then I hear something about Malibu and tanned bodies, but since he’s in whispering mode I do not know what he’s talking about. Then he moves toward hollering and I know he is talking about Monk, a former chief of staff, who is a fancy California guy whose father is a “specialist gynecologist to the stars!” And—you won’t believe this—he has peacocks on his lawn. And maybe Blago is impressed by the peacocks and the specialist gynecology business. He picks Monk to protect him from the Rezkos and the Daleys.

Does Monk know politics? No. He’s a volleyball agent. Blago figures that since Monk knows no one in politics he is trustworthy. Adam says he trusted Monk. He is clearly moving in the direction of hanging everything on Monk: he hid the bad deeds from the governor and he never tells his best friend he’s taking cash.

Then it’s Stuart Levine’s turn as scum of the earth. “He is the most corrupt man ever.” Because he will be a witness for the government, Adam says: “Their witness is up for a mandatory life sentence—but maybe he’ll get five years if he testifies here. The governor may have met him once. He’s another Maddof story. The King of Sweden even knighted him. He fooled everybody.”

Adam advises the jury that the government only landed on Blago “because they found out about the other crooks—Monk, Rezko, and Kelly.” Now seems like an appropriate time to mention that Kelly, once an insider, committed suicide. (This fact, however, the jury is not allowed to be told.) It was Blago, he avers, that alerted the Feds to Rezko. Were I a juror, I would make a note to look for solid evidence of this announcement. Adam goes on to say that when they couldn’t get Blago (they couldn’t?), they went after Patti. He walks over to her. She is sitting one row in front of me. “Her father is a powerful alderman, but she decides she’s not going to be an alderman’s daughter princess.” (Let us now add this to Jewish princess and Mafia princess.) “She wants to work. She chooses real estate. ‘I’m just as good as a man,’ she says. And she’s a good woman who loves her man.”

By this point, the judge has told him to wrap it up—twice. He winds down by saying that “there’s nothing wrong with accepting campaign contributions. He needed campaign money so he could stay independent. I feel for this family. And Blago is a great Cubs fan.”

Adam did want to clear up one important thing. It was about Obama’s seat being “golden.” It’s not that it was worth a lot of money, he explained, but that it was a golden opportunity to make an appointment worthy of our new black president.

And that, my friends (if you are still awake), pretty much sums up everyone’s opening statements. The takeaway, for me, is not so much about Blago and his sibling, but that Ettinger and Adam could give lawyers a bad name. Should either of them get his client off, I will think no better of them, but I will start to believe in miracles.

Margo Howard is a syndicated advice columnist for Creators Syndicate and Last year, she covered the Clark Rockefeller trial for The New Republic. 

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