(Chicago, IL) — June 9, 2010. Opening arguments in the federal corruption trial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich kicked off on Tuesday afternoon, as the prosecution and defense team met for the first time in open court.
The difference in styles was readily apparent.
Federal prosecutor Carrie Hamilton took the 18-member jury through the saga that was the Blagojevich investigation, utilizing a PowerPoint presentation to outline the lengthy list of charges the governor faces, including extortion and racketeering.
Hamilton spoke with cold resolve, as she discussed Blagojevich’s mounting debt and the mountain of evidence, including taped conversations of his alleged misdeeds.
“When he was supposed to be asking about what was best for the people of Illinois, he was asking ‘what about me,’” she said as she turned to a slide outlining five alleged “shakedowns.”
The presentation painted a picture of Blagojevich’s alleged repeated attempts to extort campaign donations from victims, including officials with a children’s hospital and horse track, through middlemen like his co-defendant brother Rob.
Hamilton focused on his alleged denial of state money to Children’s Memorial Hospital until the hospital’s owner, Patrick Magoon, donated $25,000 to his campaign fund.
Hamilton’s even tone was a world away from the charisma of her counterpart, Blagojevich attorney Sam Adam Jr.
Adam began his 80-minute opening statement by admitting that he did not know how to use a PowerPoint slideshow.
What Adam does know, however, is showmanship.
The defense attorney, dressed in a black pinstripe suit and vibrant red tie, moved about the courtroom, transitioning from a shout to a whisper before jurors knew what hit them.
He painted his client as an honest politician, but terrible judge of character who trusted the wrong people, including two of the prosecution’s top witnesses: convicted fundraiser Tony Rezko and former Blagojevich aide Alonzo “Lon” Monk, who pled guilty to corruption charges earlier this year.
“If Blagojevich is running this organization…this scheme, Lon Monk isn’t a co-conspirator, he’s (Blagojevich’s) best friend,” he said. “He hid (the corruption) from him.”
Blagojevich and Monk have known each other since law school.
Adam challenged the prosecution’s claim that Blagojevich was at once corrupt and receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks and financially imperiled through a mountain of debt. He told the jury Monk and Rezko were the only people with secret bank accounts and money to spare.
“The biggest corrupt politician in the country is broke and why?” he said. “Because he didn’t take a dime.”
Both sides focused a large part of opening statements on the most well-known charge against Blagojevich — the alleged attempted sale of President Barack Obama’s former U.S. senate seat.
Hamilton told the jury Rob Blagojevich’s repeated calls to representatives of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, D-IL, and conversations about millions in campaign donations demonstrate the former governor’s priorities when filling the seat.
“No matter the precise words (the Blagojevich brothers) used, their message was clear: pay up or no state action, no senate seat” she said.
Adam dismissed the prosecution’s interpretation of Blagojevich’s description of the seat as “golden.”
“Pay to play means, in order to play you have to give them something…he never saw a dime,” he said. “You have to say it (outright).”
The lawyers did find common ground in the use of repetition to drive home their respective positions.
Hamilton told jurors time and again the evidence is in the tapes the federal government accumulated over the course of its investigation. “You will hear him speak (about corruption) in his own words,” she told the jurors.
Adam, meanwhile, continually asked jurors to “follow the money,” in order to determine just who was corrupt in the Blagojevich administration.
Mike Ettinger delivered the shortest of the day’s opening statements on behalf of the former governor’s brother, Rob — or, as the jury now knows him Lt. Col. Robert Blagojevich.
Rob served in the Army and Army reserve for more than 20 years – a point which may play well with the four veterans on the jury.
Ettinger stammered often throughout his 40 minute address, but hammered home several points to the jury, the first being Rob is not particularly close to his brother; in fact, “he’s a Republican.”
The defense attorney also tried to distance his client from the political world, highlighting his only fundraising experience before coming to the campaign fund.
“He’s not a professional fundraiser…and he didn’t get involved in politics,” Ettinger said, squaring up to the jury. “(The campaign) gave him donor lists, folks, just like they did at the YMCA.”
The Blagojevich defense teams may have had the last word on Tuesday afternoon, but the prosecution will come out swinging Wednesday.
Two of the trial’s most high-profile witnesses will take the stand: FBI agent Dan Cain and cooperating witness Lon Monk.
—Bill McMorris, Illinois Statehouse News