Impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich beamed his boyish face into mine on Wednesday, shook my hand and said, “I didn’t do anything wrong. We’ll see how it all shakes out.”
Funny thing was, I hadn’t even asked him a question.
Blago, 53, was working the courtroom in a navy pin-striped suit and his famous black hair. I don’t think he could help himself. This is what he does.
How many white-collar defendants can star on reality TV shows while out on bail? How many can genuinely smile for every camera in America while facing 24 counts of attempted extortion, bribery, conspiracy, fraud, lying to investigators and racketeering for allegedly trying to sell President Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat?
During a court recess, Blago was even autographing the tickets that spectators needed to get into his trial. I had risen at 4 a.m. to score mine. I asked Blago to sign it for my mom, Anita Lewis-Schmoll. She remains grateful for the free RTD pass Blago once gave her and other seniors, I told him.
“Isn’t that something?” Blago smiled. “We still get that all the time.”
Blago quoted Shakespeare to spectator Charlie Harms, who plans to go to law school in Washington, D.C., in the fall. The bard’s line about first killing all the lawyers was really meant to underscore the nobility of the occupation, Blago explained. “This is about our liberty,” he said, “as you can see here.”
Harms had come to the trial a couple times before, getting in line as early at 5:15 a.m. and standing in the hot, wet, idle air for a ticket. “I don’t have air conditioning,” he told me. “I needed a place to go.”
Until that moment when Blago shook his hand, Harms figured the day might end in disappointment. For all his blabbing, Blago wasn’t going to testify. He wasn’t even going to call a single witness in his defense.
No White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. No Illinois congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. No convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko. Just closing arguments starting on Monday.
“This is going to be like paying the full price for a bad movie,” Harms lamented. “I came to see the spectacle.”
Blago went right on autographing tickets in the courtroom until a federal marshal noticed what he was doing and asked him to stop. At this point, Blago signed just a few more.
“This is the best retirement entertainment there is,” said John Nelson, a retired ophthalmologist who has been coming for a couple days a week since the trial began. “It’s better than watching the soap operas.”
Ava Berland, a retired federal worker, was thrilled to get Blago’s autograph. “As disappointed as we are that he’s not going to testify, I bet the prosecutors are really disappointed,” she said. “I don’t think he’ll be found guilty. I think he was just a bad deal-maker.”
Prosecutors played a bunch of recordings proving beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt that Blago and his wife, Patti, love to swear.
Prosecutors, however, didn’t show that money exchanged hands, or that any deal was completed. They claimed only to have halted a crime in progress.
What they needed was a chance to trip up Blago on the stand. And they didn’t get it, even though Blago’s attorneys had promised the jury their client couldn’t wait for the chance to exonerate himself.
Outside the courtroom, Blago told reporters that prosecutors had proved his innocence and that it was now time to do something he’d never done before: shut the heck up.
“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that I talk too much,” Blago said.
“This was the smartest move they could have done,” said Tamara Holder, a criminal defense attorney and Fox News analyst who has been covering the trial. “The moment you open Blagojevich up to cross examination, you never know what you are going to get.”
Holder has called the government’s case weak from the beginning. That’s more of a boost than Blago ever gave her.
When Blago was governor, Holder sent him letters pleading for pardons for some of her clients. “He left all of them on his desk when he was impeached,” Holder said.
I wish I could count how many times an editor once asked me, “How would Jimmy Breslin cover the story?”
The legendary columnist is renowned for dodging the mob of reporters assigned to JFK’s funeral and interviewing JFK’s grave digger instead.
Well, there was Jimmy Breslin, covering the trial. But there was no gravedigger for Blago.
“These charges wouldn’t get you five cents in New York City,” Breslin huffed. “I can’t smell money.”