(Chicago, IL) — June 22, 2010. The jury in the federal corruption trial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has repeatedly received firsthand accounts of the former governor’s alleged misdeeds, but the prosecution took a break from questioning co-conspirators on Monday and put one of the governor’s alleged victims, educator Donald Feinstein, on the stand.
Feinstein helps run the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a non-profit program developed to “fix failing schools.” Back in 2005, Feinstein’s school caught the eye of then-Congressman Rahm Emmanuel, who lobbied Blagojevich for a $2 million grant to help build an athletic facility at the school.
“We just wanted to have a field ready for our first football game,” Feinstein said.
And it appeared that dream could be met after the governor’s office approved the grant. But the state money eventually began a nightmare scenario for the school. Bills piled up as the state delayed the funds, while construction was going full force.
“I was concerned because we couldn’t pay anyone, we were approaching mid-September and the project manager said construction season was ending,” Feinstein said.
The grant was a very small one considering the hundreds of millions the state awards each year. But prosecutors say that seemingly minor prize meant big things for Blagojevich, who thought he could leverage the favor for a big time fundraiser with Emmanuel’s brother, Hollywood agent Ari.
Blagojevich’s former Deputy Governor Bradley Tusk told the jury what happened next, as he ran through a phone call he had with Blagojevich during the summer of 2006.
“He said ‘where’s my fundraiser’…and I understood that to mean the grant would not be released unless a fundraiser was first held,” Tusk said. “I thought it was illegal and unethical.”
Tusk said he was “disgusted” by Blagojevich’s actions and told former Illinois general counsel Bill Quinlan to “get (his) client under control.”
Blagojevich would eventually release all of the $2 million grant. A fundraiser was never held.
The prosecution and the defense are trying to lay out a pattern for the jury, albeit with very different conclusions. The prosecution has used testimony from former Blagojevich confidants like Tusk and Monk to paint a picture of a money-hungry shark conspiring to abuse his office for a buck.
The defense, meanwhile, has repeatedly pointed out that Blagojevich’s tough talk did not match his actions– even if a campaign donation never came.
Both sides of the trial split along these lines during the testimony of race track executive John Johnston.
Johnston testified of his encounter with an alleged shakedown in 2008. He said Blagojevich used his top-aide turned lobbyist Lon Monk to demand a $100,000 donation from the executive in exchange for signing a bill into law which would benefit race tracks.
“Lon told me ‘(Blagojevich) is concerned that if he signs the racing legislation you might not be forthcoming with a contribution,’” Johnston said.
The most insulting part of the story, according to the executive: Monk was his lobbyist at the time, drawing a $150,000 salary from his company.
“He was supposed to be working on my behalf,” he said. “And he knew I was never going to write a check.”
The defense pointed out that Blagojevich never directly requested a campaign donation, nor threatened to let the would-be law go unsigned. Blagojevich signed the law a week after his arrest.
The race track proprietor never cut a check for the campaign.
Monday offered a new breed of prosecution witnesses for the jury, who were introduced to a handful of former associates and cronies of Blagojevich and convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko in the trial’s opening weeks. Feinstein, Tusk and Johnston provide a stark contrast to Monk and businessman Ali Ata, who accepted plea deals to corruption charges, in exchange for their testimony.
Blagojevich’s defense team ran into a brick wall in the form of federal judge James Zagel in cross examining these witnesses.
Sam Adam Sr., the storied trial lawyer, ran aground as he asked Johnston about his relationship with deceased fundraiser Chris Kelly.
“Is that all you’ve got?” Zagel said after sustaining another objection from the prosecution.
Adam apologized to the judge and moved on, but Zagel’s impatience with the defense team’s tactics did not let up.
Defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky encountered more than 20 objections during his cross examination of Tusk
The defense has argued that the prosecution’s witnesses were the masterminds, rather than the middlemen, behind the corruption during Blagojevich’s six years as governor. The case has been an easier one to make with cooperating witnesses like Monk, who received several cash-stuffed envelopes from Rezko.
The judge has left the door open for the defense, inviting Blagojevich’s attorneys to recall prosecution witnesses, like Johnston, as their own. After leaving the stand, Johnston acknowledged that he had been served a subpoena by the defense. He does not expect to be recalled, although he would not explain why.
Another former Blagojevich Chief of Staff, John Harris, had taken the stand at the end of Monday’s proceedings–and he better get comfortable in the hot seat. Prosecutor Carrie Hamilton said Harris will be on the stand through the end of the week. Harris pled guilty to conspiracy to solicit a bribe earlier this year and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution.
Blagojevich faces up to 415 years in prison if convicted.
–Bill McMorris, Illinois Statehouse News