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Ex-Illinois Gov. Blagojevich pleads not guilty

Ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich pleaded not guilty to federal racketeering and fraud charges Tuesday, denying corruption authorities say included a scheme to sell President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich pleaded not guilty to federal racketeering and fraud charges Tuesday, denying corruption authorities say included a scheme to sell President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat.

Blagojevich looked relaxed as he stood alongside his brother, Robert, who also pleaded not guilty in the scheme. The former governor declared as he arrived at the courthouse earlier that he was "innocent of every single accusation."

"Now we can begin the process of getting the truth out and I can clear my name and vindicate myself," he said.

Blagojevich, 52, is charged with trying to auction off the Senate seat, planning to squeeze money from companies seeking state business and plotting to use the financial muscle of the governor's office to pressure the Chicago Tribune to fire editorial writers who had called for his impeachment.

Defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky, a longtime Blagojevich friend, entered the plea on his client's behalf before U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel. The judge then asked Blagojevich if he was pleading not guilty to all counts.

"That's correct," the impeached former governor responded.

As he left the courthouse surrounded by a massive scrum of reporters and cameras, the governor grinned and bantered as if he were running another successful campaign rather than facing federal corruption charges.

'Inaccurate allegations'
"I'm glad this process has finally begun, it's the end of the beginning in one respect, but it's the beginning of another aspect," Blagojevich said. "That is the beginning of me being able to prove and clear my name and be vindicated of what are inaccurate allegations."

Sorosky told Zagel he is seeking federal prosecutors' permission to tap Blagojevich's $2 million Friends of Rod Blagojevich campaign fund to pay additional lawyers because more legal muscle is needed to try the case.

"It's just not possible for one lawyer to defend Mr. Blagojevich, no matter who that lawyer may be," Sorosky said.

Outside court, Sorosky said even with the campaign fund Blagojevich "does not have sufficient funds to pay for lawyers," recalling that attorney Dan K. Webb estimated the total cost of defending former Gov. George Ryan on corruption charges topped $15 million.

Webb's firm of Winston & Strawn defended Ryan for free and absorbed the cost. Ryan was convicted of racketeering and fraud and is currently serving a 6 1/2-year federal prison sentence.

'Show me the money'
Sorosky said additional lawyers have been unwilling to sign on to Blagojevich's defense team until they find out if they will be paid.

"What was it that Jerry McGuire said?" Sorosky said as he entered a coffee shop across from the courthouse, still trailed by the media.

"Show me the money," a television reporter yelled out.

Prosecutors have put defense attorneys on notice that they will ask Zagel to order the campaign money forfeited if Blagojevich is convicted. Attorneys could then be ordered to return any fees paid from the campaign fund.

There even has been speculation Blagojevich might have to turn to the federal defender's program if Zagel doesn't assure attorneys they can be paid through the fund.

Robert Blagojevich, a former Army lieutenant colonel and now a self employed real estate investor, told reporters he was "prepared to cope with the charges and work through them."

His attorney, Michael Ettinger, acknowledged the case has put stress on the brothers' relationship. Rod Blagojevich brought his brother on to head his campaign fund after federal prosecutors began investigating an earlier chairman of the fund, businessman Christopher G. Kelly.

"Everything is going to work out between the two of them and obviously the type of situation they're both in, it's a little strain, but everything's fine," Ettinger said of the brothers.

While the focus was on the courthouse action, Gov. Pat Quinn, who replaced Blagojevich, visited a West Side school with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former head of the Chicago Public Schools.

"We have to take the integrity crisis caused by my predecessor and his predecessor and confront that once and for all and disinfect Illinois government," Quinn said. He said reforms have been made but added: "We have a long way to go."

The other defendants in the case, Kelly, former aides John Harris and Springfield millionaire William Cellini, are to be arraigned Thursday. Alonzo Monk is to be arraigned next week.

Harris, a former Blagojevich chief of staff, is cooperating with the federal investigation. Monk, also a former chief of staff and campaign manager, is reported to be cooperating with the investigation as well.