CHICAGO (AP) — Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Thursday began addressing — and denying — some of the corruption allegations against him, but only after about six hours of testimony about his upbringing, his first Little League hit and his college-age insecurity.
The most serious of the 20 federal charges Blagojevich faces — that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat for personal gain — did not surface on the first of what could be several days on the stand. But Blagojevich denied other high-profile accusations.
He said he never threatened to withhold a state grant from a school to squeeze then-U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel’s Hollywood agent brother to hold a fundraiser for him. He also told jurors he never tried to pressure a race-track owner for campaign cash.
Blagojevich also denied an unrelated allegation that emerged in testimony a day earlier: that he had demanded a campaign contribution from U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in exchange for giving Jackson’s wife a top job in the state lottery.
Testifying for the defense, Jackson had said his wife didn’t get a promised appointment to head the Illinois Lottery after Jackson refused to give Blagojevich a $25,000 campaign donation. Jackson said Blagojevich later cited the refusal as the reason for choosing someone else.
“I don’t remember anything remotely like that,” Blagojevich testified Thursday. His attorneys had asked for a mistrial earlier in the day, saying it had been made clear in meetings with the judge that Jackson wasn’t supposed to testify about the incident because it’s not part of the charges in the case.
Putting a defendant on the stand is always considered highly risky — in part because it opens the person to blistering, potentially damaging cross-examination later. But Blagojevich’s defense clearly hoped the former governor’s political prowess and ability to charm would help counteract the government’s three-week case.
A jury deadlocked on most charges during Blagojevich’s first trial last year, when defense attorneys rested without calling a single witness despite his sometimes bombastic insistence that he would testify.
The 54-year-old ex-governor appeared nervous as he started Thursday, but became increasingly confident and comfortable — often going on tangents, providing details about decades-old boxing matches and historical events.
At one point, he offered an apology to jurors, who had listened to infamously profanity-laced tirades caught on FBI wiretaps at the heart of the government’s case.
“I’d like to apologize to the men and women for those words … when you hear ’em it makes you wince … when I hear myself swearing like that, I am an F-ing jerk,” he told jurors.
In a clear attempt to show his human side, Blagojevich described his love of basketball, his job as a shoeshine boy and how his father left the family at one point to work on the Alaskan oil pipeline. Another time, he even recited poetry.
Prosecutors objected only twice, otherwise allowing Blagojevich to meander far from the accusations for which he is on trial, likely aware that too much objection to the defendants’ own testimony may make jurors think they are trying to stop him from telling his side.
Asked how his family background influenced him, Blagojevich said, “It gives you a certain sense of values and people needing help. … I picked up my dad’s propensity to dream.”
He also told jurors about his time at Northwestern University, saying he often felt inferior compared to other students and going into detail about dressing in 70’s disco style while other kids wore preppy shirts, “with alligators.”
“A lot of what I am, deep down there are a lot of insecurities,” he said. “That can drive you … and also have petty sides, flaws, fears.” Another time, in talking about his fondness for jogging, he said, “I have a vain quality … a certain narcissism.”
Blagojevich became most emotional as he pointed across the room and began to talk about the day in 1988 that he met his wife, Patti, who sat with tears streaming down her cheeks. When Blagojevich stopped and appeared overcome, the judge ordered a break.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
The Associated Press