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Wednesday, August 18,2010

Blagojevich is convicted on 1 count, faces retrial on 23 others

By McClatchy-Tribune News Service

CHICAGO — As Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich was a personal and political riddle, and the muddled end Tuesday to his summer-long federal corruption trial did little to clear up the mystery.

After 14 days of deliberations, the six-man, six-woman jury convicted Blagojevich on just one of the 24 felony counts he faced — a charge that he had lied to FBI agents about his intense involvement in campaign fundraising.

Prosecutors made it clear they intend to retry Blagojevich on the 23 counts on which the jury deadlocked — perhaps sooner rather than later.

Jury foreman James Matsumoto of Chicago said the panel was close to convicting the former governor on other counts — hung up 11-1 in some instances — but were not close to acquitting him on any counts. They actually had agreed to convict him of a second count last week — a count of attempted extortion — but one juror backed away from that choice at the last moment, the foreman said.

The counts on which the jury could not agree framed the heart of the government claims that Blagojevich schemed to profit from his post from his earliest days in office and in 2008 attempted to auction off the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. A lone holdout, a female retiree from the suburbs, blocked conviction of Blagojevich on the Senate seat allegation, another juror said.

U.S. District Judge James Zagel declared a mistrial on the 23 counts the jury could not reach a verdict on, including sweeping racketeering and conspiracy counts that accused him of running the state as a criminal enterprise.

Still, the lone conviction makes Democrat Blagojevich the second former Illinois governor in four years to be convicted in federal court of wrongdoing and the fourth since 1973.

The jury also was unable to come to any unanimous decision on four counts faced by Blagojevich's brother, Robert, who ran the governor's campaign fund for four months in 2008.

Blagojevich immediately portrayed himself as a victim as he lashed out at prosecutors, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald in particular.

"I didn't break any laws, I didn't do anything wrong," Blagojevich said. "This particular prosecutor did everything he could to target me and prosecute me, persecute me, put pressure on my family, try to take our home, take me from my kids, arrest me."

Without hesitation, prosecutors declared their intention to retry him. Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar said they could "be here tomorrow" to set a date.

Rather than lay low in the face of having to try the case again, Blagojevich's lawyers heaped scorn on Fitzgerald as well.

"This guy Fitzgerald is a master at indicting people for noncriminal activity," Sam Adam Sr. roared as he left the courthouse. "This guy is nuts."

As the verdict was about to be announced, Zagel asked the jury foreman, Matsumoto, if it was correct that the panel was able to agree unanimously on only one count. After Matsumoto said that was the case, the judge's deputy read that Blagojevich had been convicted of only the last count in the indictment.

Still, Blagojevich pursed his lips and shook his head slightly, stealing a glance at his wife, Patti, who stared straight ahead, breathing heavily. The single count carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, though Blagojevich likely doesn't face sentencing until after a retrial.

After learning of the conviction, Patti Blagojevich briefly doubled over, resting her head on the chair in front of her and shaking her head "no" several times. After the jury left, she collapsed back into her seat.

In an interview at his Northwest Side home Tuesday night, Matsumoto said he suspected early in the deliberations that the panel would have difficulty coming to an agreement, though they eventually did take a number of votes that were 11-1.

The foreman said the jury became exhausted listening to the undercover recordings of Blagojevich with holdouts unable to find "a smoking gun" that would satisfy them that he should be convicted. Matsumoto wasn't bothered by that problem, saying "logical inference" led him to conclude that Blagojevich was guilty of trying to peddle the Senate seat.

He pointed to government wiretaps that captured Blagojevich talking to advisers about how to parlay an appointment of Obama friend Valerie Jarrett into a Cabinet appointment or ambassadorship for himself, among other possibilities.

"If (Blagojevich) says, 'If they give me secretary of HHS, I'll make Valerie Jarrett a senator in a heartbeat,' you don't need anything else," Matsumoto said.

Matsumoto said the jury wasn't bothered by the fact that Blagojevich didn't take the stand, the differing styles of the lawyers in the case or all the swearing on recordings of Blagojevich and other players in the case. The profanity was no problem for the three jurors who were military veterans, said Matsumoto, himself a former U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam.

Lawyers in the case are to be back in court Aug. 26, possibly to pick a retrial date. Prosecutors are expected to push for the case to be back before a jury this fall, while the defense is likely to drag its heels and promised to appeal the single count the former governor was convicted on.

While gaining a conviction of the former governor on one count, the end result of the trial was a far cry from the sweeping convictions in public corruption cases that Fitzgerald and his prosecutors have grown accustomed to. In his nine years at the helm of the prosecutor's office here, Fitzgerald has secured guilty verdicts for an array of public officials, ranging from aldermen to the patronage chief for Mayor Richard Daley to Blagojevich's predecessor as governor, Republican George Ryan.

The government case against Blagojevich was a vivid example of how slowly the wheels of justice can grind in public corruption cases. Blagojevich was arrested just weeks after he allegedly began plotting to sell Obama's Senate seat, but federal agents had been probing wrongdoing in the governor's administration since at least 2004 — his second year in office — and questioned Blagojevich for the first time in 2005 during his first term.

False statements made during that interview led to the single count of which Blagojevich was convicted Tuesday.

Blagojevich's upbeat campaign-style demeanor during the trial didn't change even after the verdict as Blagojevich slapped backs and gave high-fives to well-wishers on the way out of the courthouse.


(c) 2010, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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