Blagojevich judge, attorney clash; jury sent home

Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Attorneys for former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Sam Adam Jr., right, and Sam Adam leave the Federal Court building during lunch break, Monday, July 26, 2010, in Chicago. Blagojevich and his brother are accused of scheming to sell or trade President Obama's old Senate seat. Judge James Zagel dismissed the panel Monday after Blagojevich attorney Sam Adam Jr. complained the judge was gutting his closing arguments. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

CHICAGO -- A lawyer for Rod Blagojevich clashed with the judge in the former Illinois governor's corruption trial over what he could say in his closing arguments, pledging Monday that he was ready to go to jail for contempt if the judge did not change his mind.

Judge James B. Zagel sent the jury home for the day after Blagojevich's attorney Sam Adam Jr. complained the judge was gutting his closing arguments by not allowing the defense to mention witnesses that prosecutors did not call.

Prosecutors had mentioned some of those witnesses, in their closing argument, and Adam argued the defense should be able to do the same.

"Your honor, I have a man here that is fighting for his life," Adam said, turning red and raising his hands.

Zagel responded: "You will follow that order because if you don't follow that order you will be in contempt of court."

"I'm willing to go to jail on this," Adam shot back.

Zagel said he was giving Adam the night to rework his closing arguments, given his "profound misunderstanding of legal rules."

He said Adam could designate another defense attorney to give the closing if he couldn't follow the rules.

After court adjourned, Adam told reporters that prosecutors didn't call dozens of potential witnesses, and "the jury should know that."

He said he doesn't know if he will deliver closing arguments 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.

The prosecution had wrapped up its closing arguments earlier, as did an attorney for Blagojevich's brother, Robert Blagojevich.

Both men have pleaded not guilty to an alleged scheme to sell the Senate seat that Barack Obama gave up when he was elected president, and to plotting to illegally pressure people for campaign contributions.

Assistant U.S. attorney Chris Niewoehner started his closing Monday by citing the most famous comment on FBI wiretap tapes played in court -- Blagojevich calling the Senate seat "[expletive] golden" and saying he wouldn't give it up for nothing.

"He did his absolute best to turn [his] newfound power into something golden for himself," Niewoehner told jurors.

He said Blagojevich was "at the center of corrupt individuals."

Niewoehner told jurors that Rod Blagojevich need not have made money nor gotten a high-profile job in order for his alleged schemes to be illegal. He also said they shouldn't be concerned whether Blagojevich actually managed to trade the appointment to Obama's seat for an ambassadorship or a Cabinet post or any money -- only that he made the effort.

"You don't have to be a successful criminal to be a criminal," he said.

Nor, he said, should jurors be concerned that they did not hear Blagojevich outright tell those he is accused of shaking down for money what he was doing.

"It does not have to be x for y," he said.

The prosecutor said that thanks to legal bills and his own lavish spending habits, Blagojevich was deeply in debt. "He needed this golden ticket," he said.

As Niewoehner described the sometimes profanity-laced language on the FBI tapes, Blagojevich showed little emotion, sometimes biting his lip or rocking slightly in his defense table chair. His wife, Patti, sat a few feet to his left holding their youngest daughter on her lap, sometimes handing her pieces candy. It was the first time their two daughters have been in court.

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.

Blagojevich's attorneys had said earlier that their message to jurors will be simple: "First and foremost, the government has proved nothing," Sam Adam Jr. said over the weekend.

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. Earlier Monday, prosecutors dropped one of five counts against him, a count of wire fraud.

Robert Blagojevich's attorney, Michael Ettinger, said in his closing argument that jurors never heard any testimony, any tapes in which Robert Blagojevich said of any campaign contributions: "This is in exchange for something."

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

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