Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Senate trial Day 2: FBI recordings

By Bethany Jaeger
Hearing Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s voice on secret FBI recordings played today during his Senate impeachment trial drove home the criminal allegation that he attempted to secure campaign cash before a new state law took effect this year. They, along with testimony by the FBI agent who verified the recordings, were anticipated to be the highlight of the trial, but both seemed a bit anticlimactic. Even so, with only a handful of witnesses left on the schedule, senators are speculating that they could wrap up by the end of the week.

The governor’s voice echoed through the Senate sound system. While described as striking, the audio files also were short and incomplete. As GOP Sen. Dave Luechtefeld of Okawville said, legislators previously read more about the alleged scheme in the newspaper than they heard today.

Still, Luechtefeld said: “It does show the [enormity] of this, and I think you sort of catch your breath a little bit once you hear the tapes. And then it kind of whets your appetite for what else is on the tapes.”

Only four short conversations were released by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who is limiting the amount of information released to the impeachment proceedings from his ongoing criminal investigation. The conversations heard today were between the governor and his brother, Rob Blagojevich, and his former chief of staff, Lon Monk. One brief conversation, according to the federal transcripts, was between Monk and John Johnston, a horse racing official who allegedly was the target of the scheme to donate to Blagojevich’s campaign. They all allegedly involved a scheme to secure campaign donations for Blagojevich’s political fund in return for the governor’s signature on a bill to subsidize the horse racing industry.

Blagojevich was heard repeatedly asking whether Johnston was “good for it,” referring to the campaign contribution pledge. “Before the end of the year though, right?” Blagojevich was twice heard asking his brother.

Monk, who was a lobbyist at the time of the recordings, was later heard on a cell phone conversation with the governor telling him to call Johnston. “It’s better if you do it just from a pressure point of view,” Monk was heard saying to the governor.

FBI Special Agent Daniel Cain, who has more than 22 years experience investigating white-collar crimes, also received limited authorization the U.S. attorney to testify before the Senate today. Cain said that he and several other agents listened to the recordings as many times as necessary to verify the accuracy of the summaries and of the direct quotes contained within the affidavit.

Cain later said, “I would not have attributed statements to Gov. Blagojevich if I did not believe those statements were made by Gov. Blagojevich.”

According to the affidavit, the feds noted in early October 2008 that Blagojevich started accelerating corrupt fundraising activities in advance of new ethics legislation. The FBI received authorization to secretly record Blagojevich’s conversations within his campaign office and on his home telephone. Only four of many recordings were released for the Senate’s consideration.

Blagojevich said throughout a media blitz yesterday and today that he had not heard the recordings but that they were taken out of context. He said that the public would have a chance to know the whole truth once he tells his side of the story in federal court. He dismissed the Senate trial as unfair and “fixed” in a way that ensures his conviction and removal from office; however, he and his defense team declined to participate in the trial and missed deadlines to call their own witnesses.

(Contrary to what the governor said on numerous TV interviews, Senate President John Cullerton said the trial rules still allow the governor to call witnesses. A senator would have to make a motion to allow the governor to do so because he missed the set deadlines. Forty senators, or two-thirds of the chamber, would have to allow it.)

While Cain sat before the chamber, he could respond to little else other than that his affidavit was “true and accurate to the best of my belief at the time I signed it.” Senators wanted to know, for instance, whether legislators were recorded on the wiretaps and the conditions that led up to the wiretaps and bugs. They also couldn’t get an answer to how long state funds were withheld from Chicago Memorial Hospital while the governor sought a $50,000 contribution from the hospital administrator.

Senators continuously heard Cain say: “I can’t answer that question. It’s beyond the scope of my authorization.”

Rep. Jack Franks, a Woodstock Democrat and vocal member of the special House impeachment committee, sat in the audience to listen to the recordings. He said the audio files constituted pay-to-play politics. “He sounded like business as usual for the governor. This sounds like he’s done this before, you know? Because it seems like it was so well-orchestrated that this seemed to be normal for him, get it done ahead of time.”

He said while other evidence is important to the Senate’s consideration, the audio recordings make it “real.”

“It’s irrefutable at that point when you hear the governor’s voice and his biggest concern was making sure that he got the money by the end of the year because of the new law. There’s no other explanation for it.”

Sen. Dan Cronin, an Elmhurst Republican, said the lack of the governor’s defense “means there’s something missing, that there isn’t another view or a challenge, but, you know, these tapes pretty much speak for themselves.”

At least one senator wasn’t so sure. Sen. Mike Jacobs, an East Moline Democrat who has publicly feuded with the governor, said he’s not convinced. While Jacobs did not say how he intends to vote on whether to convict the governor, he did say he questioned the broad “abuse of power” allegations made by the House impeachment. He also questioned whether the feds were using the impeachment process to benefit their criminal case. “I never saw the governor act in a manner where I thought he was acting criminal, Jacobs said. “I’m not sure I’ve heard that, yet.”

Yet, Jacobs added, it’ll be hard not to impeach the governor without his defense. “By not being here, I think he’s put himself in grave jeopardy.”

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