By Janan Hanna
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich admitted Monday that he wanted the Chicago Tribune to fire writers who were critical of him, while he was helping the paper structure a deal connected with the sale of the Chicago Cubs.
But Blagojevich, testifying in his own defense at his corruption retrial, claimed he was just "venting" when he told his chief of staff that the writers should be fired.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar asked Blagojevich whether he had directed then-chief of staff John Harris to talk with Nils Larsen, now chief executive of the Tribune's broadcasting division, and persuade him to fire members of the editorial board.
"When you say direct, I was venting," Blagojevich said.
"And you directed Mr. Harris to tell Nils Larsen to direct the Tribune to get you some editorial support," Schar said.
"It's more complicated than what you're saying," Blagojevich answered.
Blagojevich is on trial for the second time on charges that he tried to exchange his power to appoint a senator and other official action for personal and financial gain, including a high-paying job for himself and his wife, Patti.
A jury in his first trial convicted him of one count of lying to federal authorities but did not reach a unanimous verdict on the more serious counts. Blagojevich, who is being tried on 20 counts including wire fraud and conspiracy, did not put on any defense at all in the first trial.
The Tribune issue came up during the first trial, but has not come up in the second trial until Monday, in the first full day of Blagojevich's cross-examination.
Schar brought up an interview Blagojevich gave to MSNBC's Rachel Maddow on January 27, 2009, in which he denied trying to put pressure on the Tribune.
Maddow asked "Did you tell them to lay off?" meaning "lay off" in their criticism of Blagojevich. And Blagojevich had answered, "No."
Blagojevich said Monday he was not lying to Maddow, and said that he meant by "lay off" was to fire editorial writers.
An incredulous sounding Schar responded: "It's your testimony that you understood that to mean telling them to lay people off?"
"The way I read that and recall I'm talking about firing people at the editorial board," Blagojevich said.
The bulk of Blagojevich's testimony Monday centered on FBI- taped conversations prosecutors played for jurors. In the conversations, Blagojevich is heard talking with aides, fund-raising advisors, political consultants and pollsters about what he could get in exchange for the Senate seat.
Blagojevich admitted that he had a wish list of things he wanted at the same time then President-elect Barack Obama was telling him through intermediaries that he would be happy to see Obama friend Valerie Jarrett appointed to the Senate seat. But Blagojevich insisted that it wasn't one for the other.
"If you weren't getting your position at Health and Human Services then Valerie Jarrett wasn't getting the Senate seat," Schar said.
"That's not true at all," Blagojevich said.
In fact, Blagojevich said he thought he was a long shot for the position. "I'm a Cubs fan," Blagojevich said. "I'm keeping hope alive."
Blagojevich's testimony Monday was much less combative then it was during his first hour under cross-examination by Schar last week, when he favored rambling speeches over direct answers.
(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune)