Blagojevich defense attorney clashes with judge over closing arguments, vows to risk jail time

By Michael Tarm, AP
Monday, July 26, 2010

Blagojevich defense attorney clashes with judge

CHICAGO — Rod Blagojevich’s defense attorney clashed with the judge Monday over his planned closing arguments, pledging to go to jail if he is prohibited from telling jurors about witnesses that prosecutors never called.

Hours after prosecutors summed up their case against the disgraced former Illinois governor, Judge James B. Zagel sent the jury home early after attorney Sam Adam Jr. complained the judge was gutting his closing arguments.

“With all due deference, I have a man here fighting for his life,” Sam Adam Jr. angrily told Zagel outside the presence of the jury. “I can’t effectively represent him. I can’t follow your order … I will go jail on this.”

“You will follow that order because if you don’t follow that order you will be in contempt of court,” Zagel told Adam, known for his theatrical courtroom style.

The judge said he was giving the defense attorney the night to rework his closing arguments, and said Adam could designate another defense attorney to give the closing Tuesday if he could not follow the rules.

After court adjourned, Adam told reporters that prosecutors did not call dozens of potential witnesses, including now-convicted influence peddler Antoin “Tony” Rezko, and “the jury should know that.” He said he did not know what he would do on Tuesday.

“My job as a lawyer is to do everything I can for my client, and if (going to jail) is what it takes, if it’s necessary, in a heartbeat,” Adam said, recalling that his attorney father once went to jail for a client.

Monday’s action came just five days after Blagojevich announced he would not testify in his own defense, despite months of promises. His defense team promptly rested without calling a single witness, accelerating a seven-week trial that had been expected to last all summer.

Prosecutors spent the day hammering the message that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald voiced from the day Blagojevich was arrested in December 2008: That the governor of Illinois was involved in a “political crime spree.”

In methodical tones, Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Niewoehner laid out the government’s allegations of how Blagojevich tried to “shake down” everyone from a racetrack owner to a children’s hospital executive to President-elect Barack Obama, whose vacated Senate seat he allegedly sought to exchange for money or a job.

“That dirty scheme was the culmination of years of dirty schemes,” he said.

Niewoehner described Blagojevich as desperate for money, in large part because of his own lavish spending on himself and his wife and his mounting legal bills. That desperation showed in late 2008, the prosecutor said, when Blagojevich saw the Senate appointment as a way to get himself an ambassadorship to India, a seat in Obama’s cabinet or another high-paying job.

Niewoehner opened his remarks by repeating the most famous phrase of the seven-week trial, a quote that will be forever associated with Blagojevich.

“I’ve got this thing and it’s (expletive) golden,” he recalled Blagojevich saying on one of dozens of phone calls secretly recorded by the FBI. “I’m just not giving it up for (expletive) nothing.”

Neiwoehner also told the jurors that that Blagojevich need not have made money nor gotten a high-profile job in order for his alleged schemes to be illegal — a pre-emptive shot at the arguments Blagojevich’s attorneys are sure to make, that he did not make any money or turn the appointment into a new life for himself.

“You don’t have to be a successful criminal to be a criminal,” he said.

The prosecutor argued that Blagojevich indeed profited from a scheme in which his wife, Patti, was paid by Rezko for real estate work that she allegedly did not do. He said the payments stopped soon after the FBI began investigating one of the governor’s confidants.

As Niewoehner described the sometimes profanity-laced language on FBI wiretap tapes, Blagojevich showed little emotion, sometimes biting his lip or rocking slightly in his defense table chair.

For the first time, he was joined in court by his two daughters — Amy, 14, and Annie, 7. His wife sat a few feet to his left holding their youngest on her lap, sometimes handing her pieces of candy.

Blagojevich, 53, has pleaded not guilty to scheming to trade or sell Obama’s old Senate seat and illegally pressuring people for campaign contributions. If convicted, he could face up to $6 million in fines and a sentence of 415 years in prison, though he is sure to get much less time under federal guidelines.

The former governor’s brother, Nashville, Tenn., businessman Robert Blagojevich, 54, has pleaded not guilty to taking part in the alleged scheme to sell the Senate seat and plotting to illegally pressure a businessman for a campaign contribution.

Robert Blagojevich’s attorney, Michael Ettinger, said in his closing argument that jurors never heard any testimony linking his client’s fundraising to demands for anything in exchange.

“Raising campaign funds is not illegal. It is not against the law,” he said.

Earlier Monday, prosecutors dropped one of five counts against Robert Blagojevich, a count of wire fraud. They said the count pertained to a Dec. 4, 2008 phone call that he did not take part in directly.

Adam, who was credited with helping win the acquittal of R&B singer R.Kelly two years ago on child pornography charges, had been expected to deliver a booming closing argument uncommon in Chicago’s staid Dirken Federal Courthouse. Before his clash with the judge, he said that the defense’s message to jurors would be simple:

“First and foremost, the government has proved nothing,” he told the Associated Press said over the weekend.

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