Former Ill. Gov. Blagojevich takes stand in own defense

Reuters News
Posted: May 26, 2011 8:13 PM
Former Ill. Gov. Blagojevich takes stand in own defense

By Janan Hanna

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Taking the stand in his own defense in his federal corruption trial, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Thursday denied allegations that he tried to shake down business executives in exchange for official action during his six years in office.

Testifying for most of the day, the famously chatty Blagojevich often gave meandering answers, sometimes invoking historical figures and famous quotations. U.S. District Judge James Zagel sometimes said: "Stop."

Blagojevich's first trial last year ended in a deadlocked jury on most charges but he was convicted on one count of lying to the FBI. He did not put on a defense in that trial and did not take the stand despite repeatedly saying that he would.

Blagojevich on Thursday denied testimony from prosecution witness Lon Monk that he, Monk, former close aide Chris Kelly and convicted political fixer Tony Rezko had a meeting during Blagojevich's first term about how they would earn money through official action.

"I never had any meeting," Blagojevich said.

After lengthy testimony about his upbringing, school life and entrance into politics, the defense began addressing some of the prosecution allegations.

Blagojevich has not yet discussed the most famous allegation in the case -- his alleged attempt to gain personal or political favors in exchange for the appointment of a U.S. Senator to fill President Barack Obama's seat.

But Blagojevich denied that he tried to hold up a $2 million grant to a Chicago school in Rahm Emanuel's then-Congressional district because he wanted Emanuel or his brother to hold a fundraiser for him.

He also denied shaking down Chicago racing executive John Johnston in 2008 before he would sign legislation favorable to the industry.

A former Blagojevich aide testified for the prosecution that in 2006, when he asked Blagojevich why the grant had not been released, Blagojevich directed him to tell Emanuel to get his brother, the Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel, to hold a fundraiser for him. The grant was for a football field.

Blagojevich testified that he was hazy on the details of the grant but that he authorized funds to be released as invoices for construction of the field came due.

Blagojevich said he told fundraising adviser and lobbyist John Wyma in 2006 to inquire about getting Ari Emanuel to hold a fundraiser for him.

But he said the circumstances had nothing to do with the school: he had attended a fundraiser for someone else at Ari Emanuel's home near Beverly Hills and was impressed.

"It was a thrill to meet Larry David," Blagojevich said, referring to the comedian.

Blagojevich said he later told Wyma outside to ask Rahm Emanuel if Ari would hold such a fundraiser for him. The answer was no. So, Blagojevich testified, he dropped the idea.

Rahm Emanuel, now Chicago's mayor, testified briefly on Wednesday that he had no knowledge of any shakedowns by the former governor.

Blagojevich described Johnston, the horse racing executive, as a close friend and said Johnston and his family were regular contributors to his campaigns.

"Did you ever shake down John Johnston," Goldstein asked.

"No," Blagojevich said.

Blagojevich conceded that he was anxious to raise campaign funds in 2008 so that he could remain viable politically.

He said he was aware that he had limited time as an ethics bill set to take effect in 2009 would prohibit businesses with state contracts from giving campaign contributions to members of the executive branch of the state government.

"Once that law became operative, then, legally I would not be able to, nor was I going to, raise money from those same organizations that I had before," Blagojevich said.

Blagojevich also apologized to the jury for his frequent use of profanity in tape-recorded conversations played by the prosecution.

"I am an effing jerk," said Blagojevich. He also told jurors that he was "vain" and "narcissistic."

Blagojevich is set to continue testifying on Friday.

(Reporting and writing by Janan Hanna; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Peter Bohan)