Judge rebukes Blago defense after first witness
By MICHAEL TARM and KAREN HAWKINS The Associated Press May 3, 2011 2:16PM
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
A federal judge wasted little time laying down the law Tuesday on the very first day of witness testimony at the corruption retrial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, scolding the defense more vigorously than he had at the first trial.
The rebuke from a visibly annoyed Judge James Zagel came after defense attorney Lauren Kaeseberg repeatedly tried to ask the government’s first witness, FBI agent Dan Cain, how many hours of FBI wiretap recordings of Blagojevich exist. A prosecutor objected each time before she could finish the question.
Zagel had already ruled that the ousted governor’s lawyers could not try to suggest to jurors that prosecutors were hiding evidence by withholding hundreds of hours of recordings that, if played, would clear their client — an accusation Kaeseberg was clearly attempting to hint at.
“Asking those questions was inappropriate,” Zagel told defense attorneys, standing up from his chair on the bench after he asked jurors to leave the room. “I don’t want to be sustaining objections to stuff I clearly already ruled on. . . . Don’t do it in front of the jury.”
An exasperated Reid Schar, the government’s lead attorney, complained to Zagel that prosecutors had no choice but to object, but that it made them look bad in jurors’ eyes.
“It looks like we’re hiding the ball because we’re objecting,” he told Zagel.
The FBI recordings, excerpts of which were played to the retrial jurors for the first time Tuesday, are at the heart of the government’s evidence on nearly all the 20 counts Blagojevich faces, including that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat.
Blagojevich, 54, has denies any wrongdoing. His first trial ended with jurors deadlocked on all but one count, agreeing to convict Blagojevich of lying to the FBI.
Zagel, known as a no-nonsense judge, told Blagojevich’s attorneys at pre-trial hearings that he would keep a tighter leash on them during the presentation of evidence, and his rebuke on Tuesday seemed to demonstrate he meant it.
The government called its first major witness later Tuesday — John Harris, Blagojevich’s last chief of staff. He is a central figure in the allegation that Blagojevich sought to exchange an appointment to Obama’s old Senate seat for campaign cash or a top job.
With Harris on the stand, prosecutors played the excerpts of the recordings to jurors, in which a sometimes seemingly giddy, frequently foul-mouthed Blagojevich is heard talking about how he might benefit personally from naming someone to Obama’s seat.
In a recording made the day before the 2008 presidential election, Blagojevich is heard mentioning Obama’s family friend, Valerie Jarrett, and wondering if that’s who Obama wants to replace him.
“We should get something for that, couldn’t I?” Blagojevich tells Harris, adding that he’d like to get a Cabinet post or possibly an ambassadorship.
A little later, Blagojevich sounds excited about the possibility of landing a top job, but agrees when Harris says “we gotta act puzzled” and should play hard to get with Obama’s people.
Blagojevich later balks at appointing someone Obama favors without getting anything in return.
“Do they think I would appoint Valerie Jarrett for nothing — just to make him happy?” he says.
Cain, the first witness, described how FBI agents listened in to Blagojevich phone conversations for a month and a half before the governor was arrested on Dec. 9, 2008. Harris was arrested the same day but agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.