- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Former Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich sidestepped the most serious charges against him Tuesday when a federal jury in Chicago found him guilty of only one of 24 charges, lying to the FBI — at least a temporary victory for the Democrat accused of trying to sell the Senate seat once held by President Obama.

While the defendant hailed the split decision with his trademark bravado, juror Erik Sarnello said later that the former governor escaped a harsher fate by the slimmest of margins, with a single unnamed female juror holding out against conviction of charges related to filling the Obama Senate seat.

Mr. Sarnello, of Itasca, Ill., later told the Associated Press that one woman on the panel “just didn’t see what we all saw.” Other members of the 12-person jury tried to persuade the holdout to reconsider, but “at a certain point, there was no changing,” he said.

A federal judge said he will declare a mistrial on the 23 counts for which the jury could not reach a consensus, even after two weeks of deliberations. The Justice Department immediately vowed to retry the former governor on the bevy of abuse-of-power and corruption charges that one federal prosecutor famously had declared would “make Lincoln roll over in his grave.”

After the verdict was announced, a rambling but defiant Blagojevich declared himself the victim of government “persecution” and pledged to “continue the fight.” He put his legal battle in epic terms, saying it was a “fight for the very freedoms that we as Americans enjoy.”

Blagojevich insisted after the verdict he is even innocent of the one charge — a felony — for which he was convicted. He said the charge was based on a “nebulous interview” five years ago he agreed to with FBI investigators, a session in which the former governor claimed that FBI agents refused his request to have a court reporter present.

While Blagojevich expressed confidence that the conviction will be overturned on appeal, prosecutors remained equally insistent that the former governor, who was impeached and ousted after the scandal broke, ultimately will be found guilty on many more counts.

“It is absolutely our intent to retry this,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar said in court. “We could be here tomorrow.”

Judge James B. Zagel scheduled a hearing for Aug. 26 to determine the details of a retrial. The fact that the government nearly won guilty verdicts on many more counts could influence the strategy for both sides in preparing for a retrial.

Jury foreman James Matsumoto told the Chicago Tribune Tuesday evening he was prepared to convict the former governor on all counts, but declined to criticize the holdout juror or question the tenor of the lengthy deliberations.

The jurors “were very strong personalities,” he told the paper. “They were all independent thinkers.”

The decision also represents a mixed bag for Illinois Democrats and Mr. Obama, who had been watching the proceedings nervously. Democrats already faced tough fights in November in holding on to the Senate seat — now occupied by Blagojevich appointee Sen. Roland Burris, who is retiring — and the governor’s mansion — now occupied by Blagojevich’s successor, Democrat Pat Quinn.

The failure to convict the Democratic former governor of more charges could provide a little political cover from GOP attacks this fall, but the prospect of a retrial could keep the unpopular Blagojevich in the press and on voters’ minds in November.

The conviction for lying to federal agents carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, far less than the decades Blagojevich could have faced if convicted of all the charges against him. The conviction was for one of the least-serious charges he faced.

In convicting Blagojevich of that charge, the jury found that he lied to federal agents when he said he kept his political campaigns and official duties separate and that he did not keep tabs on who made campaign contributions.

In his post-trial comments Tuesday, Blagojevich also referred to a statement made the day of his arrest by U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who said the former governor was stopped in the middle of a “political corruption crime spree.” Mr. Fitzgerald, who ordered Mr. Blagojevich arrested at his Chicago home, is also the prosecutor who made the statement about Lincoln rolling over in his grave.

“Well, this jury just showed you the government threw everything but the kitchen sink at me,” he said. “And on every charge, but one, they couldn’t prove I did anything wrong.”

It didn’t come as a surprise that the jury was deadlocked, as members told the judge in a note late last week that they had reached a consensus on only two charges and hadn’t even begun deliberations on 11 of the counts.

There was no explanation for why only one count was ultimately decided. It was not known until late Tuesday evening that the single holdout juror was responsible for the lengthy deliberations and failure to reach consensus on the vast bulk of the charges.

The jury failed to reach a verdict on any of the four corruption counts against Blagojevich’s brother and co-defendant, Robert Blagojevich, a Tennessee businessman who became involved with his brother’s fundraising efforts. Robert Blagojevich told reporters afterward that he would continue to fight to clear his name and expressed frustration that a second lengthy trial could be in the offing.

His attorney, Michael Ettinger, said the verdict “was not a loss and I expect next time to be a victory.”

Tuesday’s verdict was an anti-climactic end to a hotly contested trial that ultimately lasted 11 weeks.

The most memorable allegation in the case was what prosecutors called Rod Blagojevich’s attempt to sell the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the presidential election of Barack Obama in late 2008.

Other charges accused the ousted governor of trying to get the Chicago Tribune to fire opinion writers in exchange for state funding for the Tribune-owned Chicago Cubs. Authorities also accused the two men of fostering a “pay-for-play” system, in which state jobs and contracts were won by filling the governor’s campaign coffers.

Prosecutors attempted to bolster these charges through numerous wiretap recordings that purported to give insight into the political schemes of the often profane Blagojevich.

But the full jury ultimately reached consensus on a charge that did not relate to the wiretaps but was the result of an interview of the former governor by FBI agents.

The pugnacious Blagojevich, with his distinctive mop of hair and appearances on late-night talk shows and reality television shows, has become a quasi-national celebrity in the wake of the criminal charges. He has consistently maintained his innocence in any forum he appeared.

His attorneys have said the government’s case proved only that their client was full of bluster, not that he committed any crime. In fact, his attorneys said they were confident enough that the government did not prove its case that they did not call any witnesses.