CHICAGO (Reuters) - Rod Blagojevich was combative and argumentative when prosecutors in his corruption trial began their long-awaited cross-examination of the former Illinois governor on Thursday.
On the first day of his cross-examination on the witness stand, Blagojevich refused to answer the prosecution’s questions directly, prevented his own lawyers from interrupting him with objections, and insisted he did not remember statements he had made in court minutes earlier.
After asking the jurors to leave the room, U.S. District Judge James Zagel said he believed Blagojevich’s lawyers had failed to prepare him for prosecutors and called the entire hour-long start of the cross-examination a “mess.”
Zagel urged defense attorneys to work with Blagojevich before Monday, when the cross-examination will resume, “to relieve the relatively painful nature of what’s happening in this courtroom.”
Blagojevich is on trial for attempting to win personal or financial gain from official government actions such as an appointment to the Illinois Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.
This is his second trial, charged with 20 counts, including conspiracy, bribery, wire fraud and attempted extortion. A jury in August found him guilty of one count of lying to federal prosecutors but did not reach a unanimous verdict on the more serious counts.
Schar began his questioning by referring to the one guilty verdict.
“Mr. Blagojevich, you’re a convicted liar, correct?”
“Yes,” Blagojevich said.
“And within hours of being convicted of lying you lied again,” Schar said.
When Blagojevich asked for clarification, Schar noted that Blagojevich held a news conference in the lobby of the federal court house in Chicago after his first conviction and complained that it was unjust because he was denied the right to have a court reporter present during the FBI interview.
In fact, Schar said, the FBI had recording equipment with them and Blagojevich did not want the interview recorded.
The two then sparred for several minutes before Zagel interrupted and asked Blagojevich if he remembered whether there was recording equipment.
The former governor shrugged off the judge’s question and started talking about another FBI interview he had later.
In direct testimony earlier Thursday, Blagojevich said that on the day he was arrested, he was just a couple of days away from deciding that Attorney General Lisa Madigan would be appointed to the Senate seat if he could work out a deal with her father, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, to support his legislative initiatives.
Schar tried to challenge Blagojevich on that point, saying that in a taped phone call on December 8 with an aide, Blagojevich said he would not announce the appointment until convicted political fixer and top Blagojevich fund-raiser Tony Rezko was sentenced on January 6, 2009 because he was afraid Rezko was talking with federal authorities.
Schar also tried to show that Blagojevich deceived the public when he said at a news conference that he was not considering appointing himself to the Senate seat.
In taped conversations played by the prosecution and reviewed also by the defense, Blagojevich said he was considering appointing himself.
Schar continued to try to challenge Blagojevich, saying he had lied repeatedly to the public.
Referring to a taped conversation played for jurors by prosecutors, Schar noted that Blagojevich had an aide plant an item with a gossip columnist for a Chicago newspaper in November 2008, saying that Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. was a contender for the Senate seat when, at that time, he was not.
Blagojevich said he did not see that as a lie. “That was a misdirection play in politics,” he said.
Prosecution testimony showed that Blagojevich was talking with aides between November 2008 and December 9, 2008, the date of his arrest, about possibly being appointed to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; getting money for a non-profit foundation he could head; becoming an ambassador; getting a job that paid $750,000 and getting his wife a job as a lobbyist, in exchange for appointing Valerie Jarrett, a friend of Obama who is now a White House aide, to the Senate seat.
Blagojevich admitted that he did not tell the public that he was considering these things.
“Is it fair to say at times you cause messages to be sent to the public that are not true?” Schar said earlier in the questioning.
“I try to be as truthful as possible. Politics is a difficult business.”
Editing by James Kelleher and Greg McCune