After a jury was sworn in, opening statements began Monday in the retrial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The prosecution’s statements were delivered by Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Niewoehner.
Although the substance of the government’s case is very similar to the first trial, the prosecution has simplified their case, charging Blagojevich on 20 counts, down from 24.
Niewoehner began by saying the people of Illinois put their trust in Blagojevich and he violated that trust. When he was elected, Blagojevich “swore an oath” that he would do what’s best for the people of the Illinois, Niewoehner said. Instead, he did “what was best for one person: himself.”
Niewoehner began with the alleged attempts by Blagojevich to sell the Senate seat. In November 2008, Niewoehner said, the defendant had two problems. He was in debt, and he needed to put money in his campaign fund.
“He decided to sell the U.S. Senate seat to solve his problems,” Niewoehner said. “The governor of Illinois was shaking people down. He was abusing his power as governor to get something for himself. And every time he tried to shake someone down, he violated the trust of the people of Illinois, and he violated the law,” Niewoehner said.
Niewoehner said the crimes always followed the same path. The governor would send out a demand, sometimes through a messenger, and the message would be that “if you want something from the state of Illinois, then you have to give me what I want.”
Niewoehner told the jury they were going to hear about five crimes.
First was the Senate seat shakedown. There, Niewoehner said, Blagojevich demanded political players give him campaign cash or a job with high-paying salaries in exchange for selecting their candidate to be a senator.
Second was the race track shakedown, in which Blagojevich demanded a race track owner make a $100,000 contribution to his campaign. In exchange, Niewoehner said, Blagojevich wouldn’t delay signing a bill that was costing the owner $9,000 every day.
Third was the Tollway shakedown. Niewoehner told the jury that in this alleged crime, Blagojevich demanded a campaign contribution from a constructino company executive in exchange for a hefty Illinois Tollway construction contract.
Fourth, Niewoehner turned to the hospital shakedown. Blagojevich demanded a Children’s Memorial Hospital executive make a $25,000 donation in exchange for the state giving more money to the hospital for care, Niewoehner said.
Fifth was the school shakedown. Niewoehner told the jury that in this crime, Blagojevich asked a congressman (then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel) to arrange a Hollywood fundraiser in exchange for the release of $2 million for a school in Emanuel’s district.
The defendant did not get what he demanded in those five shakedowns, Niewoehner said, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. Either the FBI arrested him before he finished what he started or somebody wouldn’t play ball.
The crimes were complete every time the defendant attempted to exchange his state power for a personal benefit, Niewoehner said, even if the exchange was never made.
Niewoehner then went into detail in the roadmap of the government’s
Blagojevich learned Barack Obama was interested in having one of his inner circle be a senator. Blagojevich did research into what he could ask in exchange for appointing Valerie Jarrett to the senate, and set out to be appointed Health and Human Services Secretary. Blagojevich had Tom Balanoff send the message.
There, the crime was complete, Niewoehner said, but Blagojevich was told all the president would offer him was gratitude. According to Niewoehner, Blagojevich then hatched a plan to create a nonprofit 501c4 organization that could raise money from Obama in exchange for appointing Jarrett to the Senate. He sent the message again through Balanoff.
Niewoehner said Blagojevich tried again, this time for campaign contributions. The prosecutor said Blagojevich had good reason to believe that if he appointed Jesse Jackson Jr., he would get $1.5 million in campaign contributions after a Jackson supporter told him he would raise as much. Blagojevich sent his brother to try to make the deal happen, Niewoehner said.
Turning to the second alleged scheme, Niewoehner recounted how the Illinois General Assembly passed a law that would help race tracks in the state, but Blagojevich didn’t sign it right away.
John Johnston was the owner of a race track, like others, that would benefit from the bill being signed into law. Every day the bill wasn’t signed into law, it cost Johnston $9,000. Niewoehner told the jury that Blagojevich decided to send a demand for $100,000 in campaign contributions in exchange for signing the racing bill. He had Lon Monk make the demand, and Niewoehner said at this point, the crime was complete.
In the third scheme, Blagojevich asked a construction executive to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for a hefty contract from the Illinois Tollway to make repairs to the roads, Niewoehner said.
Niewoehner told the jury that Blagojevich selected the most expensive plan on the table for the Illinois Tollway as his goal. He planned to use a smaller plan to “whet the appetites” of the road-building industry, Niewoehner said, and then if they wanted a $5 billion program, Blagojevich would demand campaign contributions. Blagojevich allegedly made the demand to Gerald Krozel, an executive of a construction firm.
At the same time as these other shakedowns, Niewoehner said, Blagojevich set his sights on Children’s Memorial Hospital. Blagojevich knew the hospital wanted money to help sick children, and was planning on signing the bill, but a new law would take place at the end of the year limiting campaign contributions and Blagojevich wanted to hold the bill so he could get a contribution in the five days before that law took effect. He had his brother send the message to the president of Children’s Memorial Hospital that Blagojevich wanted a $25,000 contribution in exchange for releasing the funds.
The next alleged shakedown involved Chicago Academy and then-Congressman Rahm Emanuel. Blagojevich held $2 million supposed to go to the school in Emanuel’s district and had one of his staffers go to Emanuel to ask for a fundraiser thrown by Emanuel’s Hollywood agent brother, Niewoehner said.
Blagojevich made the school go through an unprecedented five-step process to get the money released to send the message that he wanted his demands met, Niewoehner said.
In the shakedowns, “sometimes [Blagojevich] was more subtle, sometimes he was as subtle as a freight train,” Niewoehner said.
Blagojevich was a politician, Niewoehner said, and he knew how to make his demands.
After an overruled objection by the defense, Niewoehner drew an analogy between Blagojevich and a policeman who pulls someone over, with a ticket in their hand, and tries to get a payoff in exchange for not writing the ticket.
Niewoehner told the jury they would not just hear the evidence about the shakedowns, but the also would hear evidence about why Blagojevich made these demands. Blagojevich needed the money, Niewoehner said, because he personally owed over $200,000 as his debt skyrocketed.
In 2008, Blagojevich needed money in his campaign fund, as well, according to Niewoehner.
“Money is power,” Niewoehner said. Blagojevich thus decided to convert his state power into campaign cash.
Niewoehner told the jury they would get two types of evidence: recordings and witnesses. The prosecutor explained that in 2008, the government met with a man named John Wyma, who had worked with Blagojevich for a decade. Niewoehner told the jury that Wyma, a lobbyist for Children’s Memorial Hospital, had seen Blagojevich taking steps to conduct the shakedowns.
After meeting with Wyma, Niewoehner said, the FBI got permission for wiretaps of Blagojevich’s phones, and they recorded conversations Blagojevich had with his staffers and others.
The wiretaps began just before the 2008 election and continued until Dec. 9, 2008 when Blagojevich was arrested.
“In those recordings, you are going to hear the sitting governor planning those crimes and committing those crimes,” Niewoehner told the jury. “You’re going to hear him say ‘I’ve got this thing, and it’s f---ing golden, and I’m just not giving it up for f---ing nothing.”
Niewoehner told the jury they would hear Blagojevich’s reactions to being told his demands would not be met, they would hear Blagojevich tell Balanoff what he wanted for appoint Jarrett to the Senate and they would hear Blagojevich tell his wife, Patti, what he had just done.
The jury will also hear from witnesses, Niewoehner said, including Krozel, the man who was asked to raise money in exchange for the construction contract, and Patrick Magoon, the president of Children’s Memorial Hospital. Niewoehner told the jury they would also hear from top staffers and fundraisers for Blagojevich.
Niewoehner said that Lon Monk and John Harris would both testify about helping Blagojevich commit these shakedowns, and that their testimony will come because they had already pled guilty to the crimes.
Blagojevich had all the power, Niewoehner said. He decided who to shakedown and when, and he had everything to gain. Niewoehner told the jury that each of the witnesses only knew pieces of the whole plan, and that only Blagojevich at the center knew the whole story.
“Shakedown after shakedown, the defendant is guilty – guilty on these charges,” Niewoehner said.