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Witness: Blagojevich eyed job in Cabinet as political deal

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 29, 2010

CHICAGO | Barack Obama on the night before he was elected president told an Illinois union leader that his aide Valerie Jarrett was interested in the Illinois Senate seat he was vacating, jurors in the corruption trial of ex-Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich were told Tuesday.

Tom Balanoff, an official with the Service Employees International Union, said he told Mr. Blagojevich after the November 2008 election that he had spoken with Mr. Obama and that the president-elect believed Valerie Jarrett had the qualifications he was looking for in a senator.

The governor then brought up the possibility of a Cabinet post for himself after learning of Mr. Obama's call, the union official testified. His subsequent efforts to effectively sell the seat, caught on FBI tapes heard by the jury, cost him his job and led to the charges he now faces.

The White House has denied any wrongdoing in its contacts with the governor over who should get the appointment to the seat, but had not previously revealed Mr. Obama's phone call to Mr. Balanoff.

Mr. Balanoff revealed that Mr. Obama told him in an election-eve phone call he was taking no position on who should get the Senate seat and that he would prefer to have Ms. Jarrett - a longtime personal friend as a White House adviser - but that she wanted to be a senator. Mr. Balanoff testified that he told Mr. Obama he would contact Gov. Blagojevich on her behalf.

But when he mentioned the possible Jarrett appointment, Mr. Blagojevich immediately brought up his interest in becoming secretary of health and human services in the still-forming Obama Cabinet, Mr. Balanoff said.

Mr. Balanoff said he understood Mr. Blagojevich to be saying that if he got the job, he would appoint Ms. Jarrett to the seat.

"That's not going to happen," Mr. Balanoff recalled telling Mr. Blagojevich. The governor, he said, responded by saying, "Is that because all the investigations around me?"

The testimony from Mr. Balanoff, a political insider and close ally of Mr. Obama's, was at the heart of the most prominent charge in the 24-count indictment against Mr. Blagojevich - that he schemed to get a payoff in the form of a major job or a massive campaign contribution in exchange for an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat that Mr. Obama left to move to the White House.

Mr. Balanoff said Mr. Blagojevich also brought up the possibility of a foundation job or a post with a labor union.

Mr. Balanoff, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 1, followed former Blagojevich chief of staff John Harris to the witness stand. Mr. Harris had testified earlier in the trial that Mr. Blagojevich told him he had sent a message to Mr. Obama that he would trade the Senate seat for the Cabinet appointment.

Mr. Blagojevich stared at Mr. Balanoff as his onetime political ally delivered some of the strongest testimony to date at the trial.

Mr. Blagojevich, 53, has pleaded not guilty to scheming to sell or trade the Senate seat and to plotting to launch a racketeering operation within the governor's office. 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.

His brother, Robert Blagojevich, 54, has pleaded not guilty to taking part in the alleged scheme to sell the seat and to illegally pressuring a campaign contributor for money.

Harris testified earlier Tuesday that Mr. Blagojevich talked about trying to get Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan to make a deal under which his daughter, state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, would be appointed to the Senate.

Harris testified that Mr. Blagojevich was using the supposed deal as "political cover" that would make him look less self-serving if he appointed himself to the Senate seat.

Mr. Blagojevich has long said that he wanted to appoint Miss Madigan to the seat in a deal under which the elder Mr. Madigan would push through legislation on health care, public works and no new taxes. Mr. Harris said the package the governor promoted included an agreement there would be no effort to impeach him.

Harris said he never considered the Madigan deal realistic, especially if it contained such "poison pills" as the no-new-taxes and no-impeachment provisions.

Harris also said Mr. Blagojevich tried to create a false impression - that he might name U.S. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., Illinois Democrat, to the Senate seat. Harris said Mr. Blagojevich believed that Mr. Jackson was on Mr. Obama's list of acceptable candidates to replace him in the Senate, but wasn't sure how much confidence Mr. Obama and top senators had in Mr. Jackson's ability to hold on to the seat in an election.

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