Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich choked up, rambled, interrupted himself and even objected to a question posed by his own lawyer, albeit in jest, during hours of testimony in his corruption retrial Thursday.
Blagojevich’s testimony, which started about 10 a.m. and went much of the day, sounded like the beginning of an epic tragedy- one that seemed far from over as his testimony hadn’t progressed to his arrest by the time court adjourned for the day.
He denied all the charges against him, repudiating the accusations of other witnesses as lies and half-truths, in between tangents and tales of woe and success.
Blagojevich faces 20 counts in connection to several alleged pay-to-play plots including the attempted sale of President Obama’s U.S. Senate seat. The retrial began in April after his first trial ended in a hung jury on all but one count- lying to federal investigators.
“I’m here to tell you the truth,” said Blagojevich, shortly after taking the stand.
Defense attorney Aaron Goldstein then walked him through his life story, which after several hours reached the meat of the case. Blagojevich said he had approved a $2 million grant for a school in then Congressman Rahm Emanuel’s district, and it was a mistake somewhere in the bureaucracy that caused the delay.
He said he never used it as leverage to get a fundraiser from Ari Emanuel, the mayor’s Hollywood agent brother. As for paying the grant in installments instead of a lump sum, he said it was a precaution after a previous mix-up.
He also refuted Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., saying that they had in fact seen each other several times in the four years leading up to Blagojevich’s arrest, contrary to what Jackson testified Wednesday as the first defense witness. A short video clip showed one meeting, where the two hugged.
Blagojevich said he didn’t remember anything about Jackson’s wife’s interest in a lucrative state job as head of the Illinois Lottery. Jackson testified Wednesday that after his wife didn’t get the position, Blagojevich apologized before turning and, in Elvis fashion, snapping and telling Jackson that he should have donated to the governor’s campaign if he wanted to get his wife a job.
“I don’t remember anything like that,” said Blagojevich.
Goldstein asked many questions about Lon Monk, the governor’s longtime friend and former chief of staff who testified earlier in the trial for the prosecution. Blagojevich said he had brought Monk in to work with him in politics despite Monk’s lack of experience in the field.
“I thought he would protect me and the things I was trying to do,” said Blagojevich.
Monk testified against Blagojevich, saying the governor had known he was using his power to gain personal and political gains. Monk plead guilty in connection with the corruption case and is awaiting sentencing.
After a morning with only two objections from the prosecution, both U.S. District Judge James Zagel and federal prosecutors grew tired of Blagojevich’s tangents. The afternoon saw more sustained objections, with the judge interrupting the ex-governor’s testimony several times. Blagojevich even stopped himself short several times, apologizing. He caught himself a few times before the prosecutor could stand up to voice objection.
“I knew that one was coming,” Blagojevich said, earning a rare smile from Zagel, who had to that point remained almost expressionless.
Blagojevich choked up a few times when talking about his parents and his wife, made mostly self-deprecating jokes, and detailed a life of many failures but steady perserverance. He talked about his academic troubles in law school and failing the bar exam.
The former governor spoke smoothly and easily for most of his testimony. During a sidebar, when lawyers privately huddled outside of the jury, he offered a cup of water to a court security officer beside the witness stand. And he broke mid-sentence to bless a juror who sneezed before continuing. Later, though, he kept right on talking after a member of the audience sneezed twice.
At one point, Blagojevich turned in his chair and discussed the Bulls’ chances with a few of his supporters in the courtroom. He was optimistic, saying the pressure was on the Heat now. Just a few moments earlier, he’d shown the same optimism for his case after he asked an audience member about an underage drinker they had discussed previously.
“Tell him I’ll card him when I’m governor again,” he said.
Patti Blagojevich, his wife, told him not to say that, and the former governor sat down quietly moments later. The judge was not so effective.
Blagojevich continues his testimony this morning at 9:30 a.m. for a rare Friday session at the Dirksen Federal Building.