- Associated Press - Monday, June 6, 2011

CHICAGO (AP) — Ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich insisted Monday that he never tried to trade President Obama’s Senate seat for a job for himself, while prosecutors replayed recorded conversations in which he seems to say otherwise.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar began his first full day of cross-examination by pouncing on the most serious charge that Blagojevich faces — that he tried to sell or trade the Senate seat.

Blagojevich denied ever offering to name Mr. Obama’s pick for the seat — close family friend Valerie Jarrett — in exchange for a high-powered job for himself in government or the private sector. But Mr. Schar played a November 2008 tape in which Blagojevich uses the word “trade” in relation to naming Ms. Jarrett to the Senate seat and his being named secretary of health and human services.

“(Jarrett) now knows that she can be a U.S. senator if I get Health and Human Services,” Blagojevich said on tape. “I’m willing to trade the thing I got tightly held, to her for something she doesn’t hold quite as tightly.”

When Blagojevich said he never seriously thought he had a shot at a Cabinet post, Mr. Schar countered: “You’ve made a career out of taking long shots, haven’t you? You applied to Harvard.”

“Yes,” Blagojevich answered with a laugh.

Blagojevich’s corruption retrial has entered a critical stage, with the prosecution cross-examination beginning in depth.

The next few days could be decisive, legal experts said, as prosecutors try to reverse whatever gains Blagojevich may have made with the jury while fielding comparatively soft questions from his own lawyer last week. Monday is Blagojevich’s sixth day on the stand.

“The next few days are it,” said Jeff Cramer, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago. “The first deadlocked trial, the motions, everything that’s happened in the retrial so far — it all comes down to this.”

Mr. Schar, the lead government attorney, began a blistering cross-examinationa last week with a highly combative hour of questions and answers.

Mr. Blagojevich, you are a convicted liar, correct?” Mr. Schar asked, his voice raised in anger.

After the judge overruled objections from defense attorneys, Blagojevich said calmly, “Yes.”

Blagojevich’s first trial last year ended with jurors deadlocked on all but one count. He was found guilty of lying to the FBI. He did not testify in that trial.

Some legal observers say Blagojevich’s sometimes rambling, repetitive testimony in the retrial is only digging him in deeper, making it more likely he will be convicted of some or all of the 20 corruption counts he faces, including attempted extortion and fraud.

Others say he’s done well, at the very least muddying the waters after prosecutors presented a strong three-week case. The government alleges Blagojevich tried to sell or trade the Senate seat and tried to squeeze executives for campaign cash by threatening state decisions that would hurt their businesses

“I think he has done a nice job and has helped his cause a lot,” said Terry Sullivan, a former state’s attorney who helped prosecute serial killer John Wayne Gacy and who has sat through much of Blagojevich’s testimony.

Blagojevich didn’t flinch from engaging Mr. Schar in the verbal brawl when the prosecutor confronted the twice-elected former governor as cross-examination began. Facing rapid-fire questions for an hour, Blagojevich seemed occasionally flustered but not cowed.

“He didn’t crumble,” Mr. Sullivan said.

Blagojevich seemed so certain about his rhetorical ability that he even tried several times to answer questions his own lawyer tried to head off. “Objection, Rod!” his attorney yelled at him across the room.

While answering questions from his own lawyers last week, Blagojevich appeared mainly at ease but also indignant at times. He answered repeated questions about whether he ever tried to shake anyone down with a firm “Absolutely not!”

Whatever advantage Blagojevich may have gained could easily be erased over the next few days.

“As Blagojevich starts doing his dance in answer to those questions, Reid (Schar) is going to pull out the FBI tape transcripts and read from them,” Mr. Cramer said. “You got a glimpse of Reid’s tone — and he’s going to be crisp and clear. He’s not backing down.”

Mr. Cramer’s prediction: After a day or two of relentless cross-examination, the advantage clearly will be back with prosecutors.

“Coming off the stand,” Mr. Cramer said, “Blagojevich could be shaking.”

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