Court on Thursday, June 2, started in typical Rod Blagojevich style. The former Illinois governor arrived and signed autographs in front of the Dirksen Federal Building. The day, however, ended in blistering fashion.
“Mr. Blagojevich, you are a convicted liar, right?” U.S. assistant attorney Reid Schar boomed into the courtroom late that afternoon. And in response, Blagojevich flung back a yes over his lawyer’s objections.
The long-awaited cross-examination was under way, and like two caged animals posturing to see who could gain control of a minute bit of real estate, Schar and Blagojevich were marking their territory and snarling.
“Isn’t it true that within hours of being convicted of lying to the FBI, you went back to the public and lied again?” Schar continued in his high-pitched voice with increasing fury as his tall, pencil-like frame circled around the courtroom. He was bringing up Blagojevich’s press conference last August after the ex-governor was found guilty on one count of lying to the FBI, the only one of 24 counts that stuck in what was otherwise a hung jury and the reason for this retrial. “Didn’t you try and make the public believe that the conviction was unfair?” Schar’s long red tie wagged within his dark suit as his shiny bald head reddened.
At the August press conference, Blagojevich had insisted that he had not been given a chance to have a court reporter when the FBI interviewed him. “Why didn’t you tell everyone the FBI brought recording equipment?” Schar asked, adding that Blagojevich had refused the FBI’s offer to record the interview.
At the prosecution table, Daniel Cain, the FBI agent who spent six years investigating Blagojevich, clenched his right fist near his face, eyes locked on the witness stand. Patti Blagojevich, wife of the impeached governor, gripped a handful of her hair, tugging it back as she chewed gum, her face flush with emotion.
Against his lawyers’ attempts to tamp down the back-and-forth, Blagojevich returned fire. “I have strong opinions about it if you want to hear it,” he responded to Schar. “This is why we have appellate courts. What is your question again?”
“You wanted people to believe that the process that led to your conviction was unfair,” Schar replied.
“No, that is erroneous,” Blagojevich said. “I didn’t lie to the FBI,” he challenged, over his lawyers’ loud objections.
Judge James Zagel then thought it best to offer some counsel. “When witnesses argue with lawyers, they generally lose,” Zagel cautioned Blagojevich. “You may feel that things are left out, but you should wait for your lawyers to stand up and object.”
Still, Blagojevich and Schar continued sparring. Blagojevich continued to trump his lawyers’ objections, to the point that Zagel eventually told the defense team, “The defendant is sort of acting as his own lawyer.”
“Don’t you recall the FBI bringing in recording equipment right in front of you?” Schar asked.
“I don’t recall recording devices or anything like that in that interview,” responded Blagojevich.
Appearing to be angry, Schar recited a litany of minutiae from conversations that Blagojevich remembered in great detail in testimony over the past week on the witness stand. How could Blagojevich not have recollection of the recording equipment, then? “It is your testimony you don’t remember the FBI offering to record the entire interview?” a frustrated Schar squawked. Blagojevich said he could not recall.
The two battled for more than an hour. “Is it fair to say, as a politician, you lie frequently?” Schar challenged. “I try to be as truthful as possible. It is not all one thing or the other,” Blagojevich shot back.
Schar then brought up Blagojevich’s attempt to feed misinformation to various reporters on the subject of whom he might appoint to the Senate seat vacated by then President-elect Barack Obama, including a statement that he wouldn’t appoint himself, even though he really felt like he might if he couldn’t work out a better deal.
The former governor chose to redefine terms. “It’s misdirection in politics,” Blagojevich said.
“Not true it was a lie,” Schar said.
“I don’t see it that way,” Blagojevich countered.
At one point Schar asked Blagojevich if he was trying to deceive public officials because he knew no one would challenge him. “It’s a quarterback faking a handoff and throwing long,” Blagojevich said. “It’s part of the business that was designed for the inside political world.”
As the day drew to a close, Schar asked Blagojevich if he was worried about convicted real estate developer and political contributor Antoin “Tony” Rezko cooperating with authorities. He also asked Blagoevich if he held up the announcement of who would be appointed to Obama’s vacant Senate seat until he thought Rezko was going to be formally sentenced. “I was told [Rezko] was put in solitary confinement to lie about me and Barack Obama,” Blagojevich testified, citing a letter written by the imprisoned Rezko in which he claimed the government wanted him to make up lies.
After ending court for the day, Zagel instructed Blagojevich and his defense counsel that cross-examination would be “a mess” if Blagojevich continues to answer questions over the objections of his lawyers when the trial resumes Monday; he also threatened sanctions, which could include contempt-of-court fines.
“I think his lawyers are going to have a very serious heart-to-heart talk with him, because he’s tugging at the leash so hard, no one can control him anymore,” says Lance Northcutt, a criminal-defense attorney and adjunct professor at John Marshall Law School who watched the cross-examination. Northcutt says the government would be wise to keep the cross-examination to a concise format and then “get out of there,” since Blagojevich has “done enough to hurt himself.”
“It’s not uncommon for witnesses to talk over the cross-examiner,” Northcutt says. “It’s almost unheard of for witnesses to talk over the objections of their own lawyers and be completely unrestrained. The judge is just letting him cut his own throat, which he’s doing.”
“The Brothers Blagojevich: On Trial Together but Apart.”
See the fall of the house of Blagojevich.