Blagojevich pleads not guilty

April 14, 2009 4:22:28 PM PDT
Ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich pleaded not guilty to racketeering and fraud charges Tuesday, defiantly embarking on a long journey to clear his name but facing serious money problems and without a team of lawyers in place. "I'm glad this process has finally begun," the impeached former governor told the media throng that spilled into the street in front of the courthouse after he and his brother, Robert, were arraigned on corruption charges.

"It's the end of the beginning in one respect but it's the beginning of another aspect" of the case, Blagojevich said. "That is the beginning of me being able to prove and clear my name and be vindicated of what are inaccurate allegations."

Blagojevich, 52, is charged with scheming to sell President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat, attempting to extort campaign money from companies seeking state business and plotting to use the financial muscle of the governor's office to pressure the Chicago Tribune to fire editorial writers calling for his impeachment. The accusations led to his ouster as governor, but he repeated Tuesday what he has been saying for months - that he is not guilty.

The former governor appeared to be in his element as the focus of a major political story yet again. He chatted amiably with reporters, and when one television cameraman stood atop a concrete pillar outside the courthouse to get a shot from above, he obligingly looked up and smiled.

Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9 after authorities said he was heard on FBI wiretaps discussing swapping the Obama seat for a Cabinet post, a new job or campaign money. A federal grand jury returned a 19-count indictment April 2 that alleges corruption beginning before Blagojevich even took office.

At the 10-minute arraignment, Blagojevich and the only attorney currently on his case, longtime friend Sheldon Sorosky, entered a plea of not guilty.

U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel then started a sequence of legal maneuvers that attorneys said would most likely lead to a Blagojevich trial a year or two down the road. Blagojevich faces charges including racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud, extortion conspiracy, attempted extortion and making false statements. Most of the charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Prosecutors must give the defense team mounds of documents and recordings made over years of investigation. Defense attorneys can then be expected to ask Zagel to throw out much of it.

"The circumstances of these wiretaps hasn't been flushed out yet," said DePaul University law professor Leonard Cavise. "We can expect all kinds of motions to suppress evidence. They will challenge the warrants. They will challenge whether the government had probable cause" to tap Blagojevich's home and campaign office phones.

The sheer bulk of evidence defense attorneys must sift through makes it all the more important for Blagojevich to assemble a full legal team quickly.

"It's just not possible for just one lawyer to defend Mr. Blagojevich, no matter who that lawyer may be," Sorosky told the judge.

The lack of a legal team can be traced to a lack of money.

Sorosky told Zagel he is seeking prosecutors' permission to tap Blagojevich's $2 million campaign fund to pay additional attorneys because much more legal muscle is needed to mount an adequate defense. Outside of court, Sorosky said even that money won't be enough.

Sorosky recalled that the blue-chip law firm of Winston & Strawn had defended former Gov. George Ryan on racketeering and fraud charges and that chief counsel Dan K. Webb estimated the total cost at millions of dollars. Winston & Strawn defended Ryan for free, but no big-name lawyers are lining up to do the same for Blagojevich.

"What was it that Jerry Maguire said?" Sorosky said as he entered a coffee shop across from the courthouse still trailed by reporters and cameras.

"Show me the money," a television reporter yelled out.

One of the city's top criminal lawyers, Edward M. Genson, had been Blagoejvich's chief defense counsel. But he resigned after the former governor was deaf to Genson's entreaties to stop sounding off on television interview shows.

Genson law partner Terence P. Gillespie announced more than a month later that he would be stepping in. But he had to withdraw because he had previously represented a Blagojevich co-defendant, Springfield millionaire William Cellini.

Attention has recently focused on the possibility that veteran defense attorney Thomas Breen might be brought in. But no agreement has been reached so far.

Robert Blagojevich, a self-employed real estate investor, told reporters after entering his not guilty plea that he was "prepared to cope with the charges and work through them."

His attorney, Michael Ettinger, acknowledged the case has put stress on the brothers' relationship. Rod Blagojevich brought his brother on to head his campaign fund after federal prosecutors began investigating an earlier fund chairman, businessman Christopher G. Kelly.

"Everything is going to work out between the two of them and obviously the type of situation they're both in, it's a little strain, but everything's fine," Ettinger said.

Kelly and Cellini are to be arraigned Thursday, as is co-defendant John Harris, a former Blagojevich chief of staff whose attorneys have said is cooperating in the government's investigation. Another former chief of staff, Alonzo Monk, is to be arraigned next week.


Associated Press writers Deanna Bellandi, Michael Tarm and Sophia Tareen contributed to this report.

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