State senators swept ahead with the impeachment trial of Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich on Tuesday, hearing testimony from an FBI agent who said secret wiretaps recorded the governor calling President Obama‘s vacant U.S. Senate seat a “golden” opportunity to make money.
For the first time, FBI recordings were played of the governor himself. Investigators say he was attempting to pressure a racetrack owner for campaign contributions in exchange for signing legislation that would benefit the horse-racing industry. On the tinny recordings, Mr. Blagojevich never mentions money, but discusses a future fundraising event and his wish to “start picking some dates to do a bill signing.”
Absent from the Senate proceedings was the media-savvy governor, who continued his public relations campaign in New York City, holding court in at least a dozen press interviews to proclaim his innocence. He called the trial “fixed” and claimed prosecutors are using snippets from the audiotapes out of context.
“There’s all kinds of things people say that are taken out of context, not given a full context, that can be twisted and sound not so good,” the governor said on Fox News’ morning show.
While FBI special agent Daniel Cain did not address context during his testimony in the ornate Senate chamber, he testified repeatedly that Mr. Blagojevich accurately was quoted in a 76-page affidavit filed when the governor was arrested Dec. 9 on federal corruption charges.
Opening the second day of the impeachment trial, Mr. Cain concurred that the governor said on the tapes that Mr. Obama’s Senate seat was an “[expletive] valuable thing, you just don’t give it away for nothing.” He also said Mr. Blagojevich said, “I’ve got this thing and it’s [expletive] golden, and uh, uh I’m just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing.”
Prosecutor David Ellis asked the agent whether the governor also said: “I want to make money,” a quote from the affidavit.
“Yes,” Mr. Cain said.
Mr. Ellis spent much of the day working through the affidavit, often one paragraph at a time. The sworn affidavit says Mr. Blagojevich sought to trade the Senate seat for a Cabinet or ambassadorial position in the Obama administration, or a high-paying job for himself and his wife.
The governor said before Mr. Obama’s elections that “the trick is how do you conduct indirectly a negotiation” for the Senate seat, according to the affidavit. Of Mr. Obama, Mr. Blagojevich said he wasn’t going to just give this “[expletive] his senator. [Expletive] him. For nothing? [Expletive] him.”
While the governor does not deny making the comments, he said on Tuesday that he did nothing illegal.
“In the end, a lot of it was talk and exploring ideas,” he told the Associated Press. “I never, ever intended to violate any criminal law.”
On Fox News, he was asked how a statement like “I want to make money” could be taken out of context. “Well, let me say this: If that was said, that’s subject to many interpretations. That could mean I want them to help us pass health care; I want them to help us pass a jobs bill; I want them to help us hold the line on taxes.”
The prosecution said the four brief tapes played in the Senate on Tuesday illustrated how the governor and his associates pressured a racetrack owner to donate money to the Democratic governor’s re-election campaign before new ethics rules took effect. Twice, Mr. Blagojevich is heard asking his brother to confirm that the contribution will be made “before the end of the year.”
In another excerpt, the governor strategizes about the best way to pressure the racetrack owner into coming up with the money he had promised to donate.
“I’ll call him and say yeah, we’ll, and we want to do an event down … downstate,” Mr. Blagojevich told his former chief of staff, Lon Monk. “We wanna do it and hope, hope to do this so we can get together and start picking some dates to do a bill signing? Right?”
This month, the Illinois House voted 117-1 to impeach Mr. Blagojevich - the only “no” came from his sister-in-law - and at least 40 of the 59 sitting senators must vote to remove the governor, which would be a first for Illinois. While he has not yet been indicted on criminal charges, the governor’s Senate trial also revolves around allegations that he tried to have Chicago Tribune editorial writers fired, threatened to deny money for children’s health care unless a hospital executive contributed to his campaign fund, and sought to elicit contributions in exchange for state services.
The 52-year-old governor on Tuesday sidestepped a question on whether he’ll abide by the Senate’s decision.
“I’ll respect the law and the Constitution and the rules,” he said, “and whether or not there are legal remedies to pursue beyond this we haven’t really discussed … but I’m not going to rule out what some of those options might be.”