- The Washington Times - Friday, July 10, 2009

It’s a critical development for many criminal prosecutions and one from which convictions often follow: the moment a trusted associate becomes a government witness.

That moment may have arrived in the corruption case against former Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.

On Wednesday, Mr. Blagojevich’s former chief of staff, John Harris, pleaded guilty in federal court in Chicago under a plea agreement that calls for him to testify against his former boss. Harris’ lawyer told reporters he has “never met a person who is going to be a better witness than John Harris is going to be.”

“This is very bad for the former governor. It’s an exceptional piece of evidence and testimony for the government,” Michael Weinstein, a former Justice Department trial attorney who is now in private practice, said of Harris’ cooperation. “I perceive it as somewhat of a layup for the prosecutors.”

Mr. Blagojevich, a Democrat who was impeached and ousted from office earlier this year, faces charges stemming from a sweeping 16-count indictment that accuses him of running the state like a crime syndicate. Among the more sensational allegations are that he tried to sell to the highest bidder the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the presidential election of Barack Obama.

Federal prosecutors frequently use the cooperation of subordinates to build criminal cases against elected officials.

The ongoing corruption trial of former Rep. William J. Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat, has included testimony from a former aide. Former Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland, a Republican, pleaded guilty to a corruption charge in 2004 after an investigation that authorities say was helped substantially by the cooperation of his former deputy chief of staff.

In the Blagojevich case, Harris is the first person to plead guilty. And he is prepared to testify that he was with Mr. Blagojevich throughout what prosecutors have called a “political corruption crime spree.”

According to the plea agreement, Harris sometimes schemed with Mr. Blagojevich, who prosecutors say wanted to trade the seat for either a senior-level position in Mr. Obama’s administration or a high-paying job in the private sector. At other times, according to the agreement, Harris opposed Mr. Blagojevich’s plans.

In an example of Harris helping Mr. Blagojevich, according to the agreement, Harris came up with a plan for the governor to exchange the Senate seat for a job with the labor federation Change to Win.

Authorities said they moved quickly to arrest Harris and Mr. Blagojevich to stop them from going through with any of their suspected plans to sell the seat.

Harris pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud, and prosecutors will recommend he receive less than three years in prison because of his cooperation. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago declined to comment on the implications of Harris’ guilty plea.

Mr. Blagojevich has pleaded not guilty and vowed to fight the charges against him. Messages left Thursday with Mr. Blagojevich’s attorney and publicist were not returned.

“Without Harris, the government has a much more difficult case,” said Barry J. Pollack, a white-collar defense attorney not involved with the Blagojevich case. “With Harris, they may not yet be over the goal line, but they’ve got to feel like this is a major piece getting them close.”

Mr. Pollack said Harris’ testimony will guide jurors through the infamous wiretapped conversations that captured a profane Mr. Blagojevich purportedly discussing selling the Senate seat. Harris will also be able to provide context for those recordings, Mr. Pollack said.

“Ever since we heard the tapes of Blagojevich, there hasn’t been much doubt that the government was going to have some very compelling evidence to bring forward,” said Robert Kelner, a white-collar defense lawyer who specializes in political-corruption cases and congressional investigations. “The doubt has really concerned the legal basis for the prosecution and whether or not Blagojevich’s lawyers may be able to claim that his unseemly behavior was nonetheless legal.

“This is a critical step forward for the government’s case,” Mr. Kelner added, “but they are still going to have to persuade a judge that what Blagojevich did was offer a quid pro quo and not just that he engaged in unseemly behavior.”

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