CHICAGO (AP) - 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
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.
An attorney close to his legal defense said Blagojevich even
wants U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel's permission to leave the
country to appear on a reality TV show in the Costa Rican jungle
that could be taped in June. The attorney spoke on condition of
anonymity, saying the plan was confidential.
Defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky declined to confirm the reality
show idea. Publicists Glenn Selig and Justin Herndon did not
immediately return messages from The Associated Press.
The lawyer did not name the show Blagojevich hopes to be on. But
NBC said Tuesday it wants the former governor to appear on a show
called "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!" pending court
Ten celebrities will be dropped into the Costa Rican jungle "to
face challenges designed to test their skills in adapting to the
wilderness," a network statement said.
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 Sorosky, a
longtime friend and the only attorney currently on the case,
entered the not guilty plea.
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
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
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
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
"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.