CHICAGO – Prosecutors have responded to Rod Blagojevich’s appeal of his corruption conviction, challenging the notion that the behavior that landed the disgraced former Illinois governor behind bars was run-of-the-mill political horse-trading.
Government attorneys rebutted that and other claims in an unusually lengthy, 169-page filing before a midnight deadline Tuesday. It’s a reply to the Democrat’s July appeal with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
Jurors convicted Blagojevich on 18 counts, including trying to profit from his power to name someone to the Senate seat that Barack Obama vacated to become president. Blagojevich is serving a 14-year prison term in Colorado as Inmate No. 40892-424.
In their 100-page appeal, defense attorneys claim Blagojevich engaged in a legal “political horse-trade” when he floated the idea of a Cabinet seat or ambassadorship for himself if he appointed Obama confidant Valerie Jarrett to the seat. Neither Obama nor Jarrett have ever been accused of any wrongdoing in the case.
In their response, prosecutors balk at the idea that what Blagojevich did was commonplace.
“This is an extraordinary claim,” the government filing says. “No matter the price he charges, a public official who sells his office engages in crime, not politics.”
Blagojevich’s appeal seeks a new trial or at least a reduction in what his attorneys describe as an excessive, disproportionate sentence. They allege a litany of errors and a lack of evenhandedness by the trial judge, U.S. District Judge James Zagel.
One of Zagel’s errors, the defense argued in their filing, was to allow a biased juror to sit on the panel during Blagojevich’s second, decisive trial. Their appeal only referred to him as Juror No. 174, noting that he said about Blagojevich during jury selection that, “I just figured him, possibly, to be guilty.”
But prosecutors said in their filing that a partially formed opinion isn’t in itself grounds for booting someone off a jury. And in any case, they added, Juror No. 174 assured Zagel that he understood he was obliged to decide Blagojevich’s guilt or innocence based only on the evidence presented in court.
“Juror 174 told the court he believed he could do that and stated that he would do that,” prosecutors said. “Nothing in the juror’s comments suggested that he had ‘an irrational or unshakeable bias.’”
Zagel imposed the stiff 14-year prison term at a hearing later in 2011, scolding Blagojevich for abusing voters’ trust and undermining the democratic process “to do things that were only good for yourself.”
Now into his second year in prison, Blagojevich could learn the fate of his appeal soon. A three-judge appellate panel is expected to schedule oral arguments and then issue a ruling within months.
After the then-governor’s Dec. 9, 2008, arrest, Blagojevich hit the talk show circuit to declare his innocence and to rail against prosecutors. He even appeared on Donald Trump’s reality show, “The Apprentice.”
Secret wiretaps of an often foul-mouthed Blagojevich eager to earn big money were at the core of prosecutors’ case. “I’ve got this thing and it’s f------ golden,” jurors heard Blagojevich saying in one wiretapped conversation about Obama’s vacated seat. “And I’m just not giving it up for f------ nothing.”
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