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The prosecutors bore in on two specific targets whom Blagojevich was seeking to shakedown: President Obama’s good friend and confidant Valerie Jarrett and Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. The evidence regarding Jackson, son of former Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, was overwhelming against the former governor. Recordings revealed several attempts to get a rich backer of Jackson, an Indian businessman named Raghu Nayak, to hold private fundraisers for Blagojevich in exchange for giving the congressman the Senate seat. The attempts to realize this scheme continued right up to the day that Blagojevich was arrested on December 9, 2008.
But the marquee testimony dealt with Blagojevich’s attempts to finagle a cabinet post, or lucrative union job, by holding up the Obama transition team over the president’s choice of Jarrett to take his seat.
There is no doubt that Obama wanted Jarrett for the seat. The question has always been how far the president was willing to go to get it for her. What the recordings reveal is that the Obama transition team sensed exactly what Blagojevich was selling and had minimal contact with him. No doubt the president and his chief transition aide at the time, Emanuel, both long-time players in the rough and tumble world of Chicago politics, knew the game Blagojevich was playing and further understood the legal ramifications involved.
In fact, Blagojevich was being so blatant about his pay for play schemes that Valerie Jarrett eventually asked President Obama to withdraw her name from consideration. Jarrett, too, was a veteran of the Chicago political scene and no doubt sensed danger in Blagojevich’s wheeling and dealing.
But that didn’t prevent Obama’s people from sending several go-betweens, including powerful SEIU union chief Tom Balanoff, to scout out the former governor and try to come to an agreement.
In a call to Balanoff, Blagojevich was recorded trying to get President Obama to give him a plush job with a non-profit union foundation after his term as governor was up. When it became clear that the president was not going to give him what he wanted — a cabinet post or a sinecure with a private foundation or company — Blagojevich’s frustration boiled over into an expletive-laced tirade, concluding with:
“[T]hey’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation. [expletive] them.”
The recorded conversation with Balanoff elicited this exchange between prosecutor Schar and Blagojevich:
Schar: “You tell Tom Balanoff you want $25 million [in the foundation’s fund and then a job there.]”
Blagojevich:”Possibly work there.”
Schar: “You wanted the money quickly?”
Blagojevich: “So I could fight for health care and join the fight.”
Eventually, Schar got Blagojevich to expose himself by asking, “Did you mean to communicate to Mr. Balanoff that you would give Jarrett the Senate seat if you got your funding for your 501c4?”
“No, I didn’t mean to do that,” Blagojevich said after being directed by the judge to answer the question.
No one believed him — especially the jury.
After the verdict was read, the jurors were unanimous in their belief that they had reached the right decision. One juror said, “He proved himself guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. He kept saying ‘Do it!’ ‘Push it!’ ‘Get it done!’ That’s where he crossed the line.” Another juror mentioned how difficult it was to reach an agreement on many of the counts. “Many times, we had to keep re-voting,” the juror said. Others commented on the difficulty of overlooking how personable Blagojevich could be, as the former governor turned on the charm on the witness stand. “We had to put aside whether we liked him or didn’t like him and just go by the evidence presented to us,” said one.
The Blagojevich odyssey is not quite over. No sentencing date has been set but US District Judge James Zagel has ordered Blagojevich not to leave Northern Illinois. And there will be the inevitable appeals by the former governor’s defense team.
Blagojevich himself said he was “stunned” by his conviction. Herein lies the real Shakespearean tragedy of the disgraced governor’s life and times. For the classical tragic figures — Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear — it was a combination of their flaws as human beings and their inability to recognize that those flaws would lead to their own destruction, which gave their characters pathos and supplied a sense of impending doom that surrounded them.
For the disgraced ex-governor — arrested, impeached, convicted, tried twice, and now found guilty on 17 counts of political malfeasance and corruption — there will be no second act.
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