- Associated Press - Thursday, February 24, 2011

CHICAGO (AP) — Two racketeering charges and a wire fraud count against impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich were dropped at a pretrial hearing on Thursday in Chicago — as prosecutors bid to strengthen their cases by simplifying ahead of a spring retrial.

Prosecutors’ initiative to dismiss the three counts and defense lawyers’ agreement at the status hearing cuts the number of charges Blagojevich will face at his corruption retrial to 20 from 23. The trial is scheduled to start April 20.

Prosecutors took courtroom observers by surprise at a Wednesday hearing by telling U.S. District Judge James Zagel they wanted to toss the charges to streamline the case. They added that the allegations of wrongdoing in the dropped charges are duplicated in ones that remain.

The charges were dismissed formally after the defense, as expected, told Judge Zagel on Thursday that they had no objections to the prosecution’s move to throw out counts 1, 2 and 4 from the original indictment, Blagojevich attorney Sheldon Sorosky explained after the hearing.

Blagojevich, 54, faces retrial on remaining charges, including that he tried to sell or trade an appointment to President Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat. At his first trial, jurors deadlocked on all but one count, convicting Blagojevich of lying to the FBI.

Jurors spent 14 days deliberating at that initial trial, several complaining later that some charges were too complex and too hard to follow. The racketeering count epitomized the challenge to jurors, with dozens of subsections, and multiple acts jurors had to sort through and try to agree on.

Blagojevich on Wednesday characterized the government’s move as good news.

But the federal prosecutors clearly hope that scratching the more intricate, convoluted counts will boost their chances of winning convictions. At minimum, it will sharply cut down on the book-sized, 100-plus page instructions that jurors relied on as a guide during deliberations at the first trial.

Even subtracting the three charges, Blagojevich still face years in prison if convicted. Each of 10 remaining wire fraud counts, for instance, carries a maximum 20-year prison term. That’s also the maximum penalty for the standing extortion and attempted extortion charges.

The highest-profile accusation against Blagojevich — that he attempted to sell or trade Mr. Obama’s old Senate seat — featured prominently in the now-struck racketeering count. However, it remains at the heart of a conspiracy to commit extortion charge that stays put.

The dropped racketeering count also incorporated an alleged shakedown that targeted Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel, former White House chief of staff.

The accusation is that Blagojevich wanted to withhold grant money for a school in then-U.S. Rep. Emanuel’s district unless his Hollywood-agent brother raised campaign cash for the governor. The allegation is still the focus of remaining count 14 — attempted extortion.

Mr. Emanuel hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing in the case, and he did not take the stand at the first trial. But there’s always a chance he could be called as a witness either by prosecutors or by the defense during the upcoming trial.

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