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Prosecutors take aim at Blagojevich defense claims

Twenty months after Gov. Rod Blagojevich was led out of his house in handcuffs for what prosecutors called a "political crime spree," attorneys will make their last pitch to jurors during a trial that has been littered with names like Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel and Jesse Jackson Jr.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A prosecutor wrapped up his closing arguments in Rod Blagojevich's corruption trial Monday after focusing on shooting down the former Illinois governor's defense, saying that Blagojevich need have made no money or gotten a high-profile job in order for his alleged schemes to be illegal.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Niewoehner told jurors that they shouldn't be concerned whether Rod Blagojevich actually managed to trade the appointment to President Barack Obama's old Senate seat for an ambassadorship or a Cabinet post or any money — only that he made the effort.

"You don't have to be a successful criminal to be a criminal," he said.

Nor, he said, should jurors be concerned that they did not hear Blagojevich outright tell those he is accused of shaking down for money what he was doing.

"It does not have to be x for y," he said.

For example, of allegations that Blagojevich was trying to elicit campaign donations from businessman Raghuveer Nayak in exchange for appointing Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. to the Senate seat, he said if the governor never specifically said the appointment was tied to the contributions, he didn't need to.

"You do not have to say to Raghu Nayak, I will give you the U.S. Senate seat if you give me a million dollars.' It's the message that's important, not the specific words," Niewoehner said.

He said that message got through to Nayak, as it did to the Children's Hospital executive that if he didn't come up with a $25,000 campaign contribution, it would cost the hospital millions in state funding.

As Niewoehner described the sometimes profanity-laced language on FBI wiretap tapes, Blagojevich showed little emotion, sometimes biting his lip or rocking slightly in his defense table chair. His wife, Patti, sat a few feet to his left holding their youngest daughter on her lap, sometimes handing her pieces candy. It was the first time his two daughters have been in court.

Niewoehner started his closing Monday by citing the most famous comment on FBI wiretap plays played in court, Blagojevich calling the Senate seat "(expletive) golden" and saying he wouldn't give it up for nothing.

"He did his absolute best to turn (his) newfound power into something golden for himself," Niewoehner told jurors.

He said Blagojevich was "at the center of corrupt individuals."

"When you agree with someone else to commit a crime, you committed one," said Niewoehner, in a direct attack on the defense argument that all the governor did was talk. "Talking is the crime."

Niewoehner also countered suggestions that Blagojevich never acted on any alleged schemes, displaying a list under the headline, "Blagojevich Actions in Senate Shakedown." It included Blagojevich allegedly telling aides to try to negotiate with those he believed were White House emissaries.

Blagojevich, 53, has pleaded not guilty to scheming to trade or sell Obama's old Senate seat and illegally pressuring people for campaign contributions. If convicted, he could face up to $6 million in fines and a sentence of 415 years in prison, though he is sure to get much less time under federal guidelines.

Blagojevich's attorneys said their message to jurors will be simple: "First and foremost, the government has proved nothing," Sam Adam Jr. said over the weekend.

The former governor's brother, Nashville, Tenn., businessman Robert Blagojevich, 54, has pleaded not guilty to taking part in the alleged scheme to sell the Senate seat and plotting to illegally pressure a businessman for a campaign contribution.

Earlier Monday, prosecutors dropped one of five counts against Robert Blagojevich, a count of wire fraud. They said the count pertained to a Dec. 4, 2008 phone call that he did not take part in directly.

Robert Blagojevich's attorney, Michael Ettinger, said in his closing argument that jurors never heard any testimony, any tapes in which Robert Blagojevich said of any campaign contributions: "This is in exchange for something."

"Raising campaign funds is not illegal. It is not against the law," he said.

Niewoehner had told jurors earlier that Robert Blagojevich lied when he denied knowing about the alleged attempt by his brother to sell or trade an appointment to the Senate seat. He said the two were trying to get money or a job for the former governor in exchange for the appointment, and that Robert Blagojevich knew his brother was going to trade the appointment for "something good."

Many jurors jotted down notes as Niewoehner spelled out what specifically they should be looking at in trying to match evidence with each of the 24 counts against Rod Blagojevich.

The governor, in debt and desperate for money, tried to shake down everyone from Obama to a racetrack owner to a children's hospital executive, Niewoehner said as he methodically reviewed the highlights of the seven-week trial. Niewoehner also said Blagojevich lied to the FBI about the alleged schemes.

The prosecutor noted that thanks to legal bills and his own lavish spending habits, Blagojevich was deeply in debt. "He needed this golden ticket," he said.