By Janan Hanna
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich said on 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, said he was just "venting" when he told his chief of staff the writers should be fired.
Blagojevich also denied Monday that his desire to be appointed to a cabinet position in the Obama administration, or to head a non-profit funded by wealthy Democrats, was connected to his power to appoint a senator to fill the vacancy created when Barack Obama became president.
Blagojevich is on trial for the second time on charges he tried to exchange 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, being tried on 20 counts including wire fraud and conspiracy, did not put on any defense in the first trial.
The Tribune issue came up during the first trial, but had not come up in the second until Monday, in the first full day of Blagojevich's cross-examination.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid 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 what 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 advisers, political consultants and pollsters about what he could get in exchange for the Senate seat.
Blagojevich admitted he had a wish list of things he wanted at the same time then President-elect Barack Obama was telling him through intermediaries 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."
Testimony Monday also turned to allegations Blagojevich held up certain state action because he wanted campaign contributions.
He is accused of shaking down the owner of two racetracks, John Johnston, in exchange for signing legislation favorable to the industry. Prosecutors allege he postponed approving $8 million in pediatric doctor reimbursements because the executive director of Children's Memorial Hospital, Pat Magoon, refused to give money or hold a fundraiser.
And, Blagojevich was accused of approving but then holding back some of a $2 million grant to a school in then Congressman Rahm Emanuel's district, telling aides he wanted Emanuel's brother, Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel, to hold a fundraiser for him.
In all three cases, Blagojevich did not deny he was seeking campaign contributions. But he said he wasn't seeking them in exchange for state action.
(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Jerry Norton)