ICPR Paul Simon Fellows Respond to Blagojevich Trial on May 25, 2011
The circus that has surrounded the trial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich from the outset was no less sensational when the defense presented its case to the court on Wednesday. The highly anticipated testimony of Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel lived up to the hype. Jackson painted an evocative picture of both his relationship with the former governor and also the “pay to play” mindset of Blagojevich. Jackson described his relationship with the former governor as “frosty” at best. Although, when questioned about his vacant U.S. Senate seat formerly occupied by Barack Obama, Jackson denied being propositioned by the Blagojevich administration to exchange fundraising for the seat. The defense team then rested and the testimony quickly shifted directions as the prosecution began their cross examination of Congressman Jackson. The state asked Jackson if he had ever been offered a position in exchange for fundraising or donations. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., proceeded to give an animated account of his previous encounters with Rod Blagojevich. In 2002 during Congressman Blagojevich’s campaign for governor, Jackson was approached by Congressman Lipinksi to donate $25,000 to Blagojevich’s campaign, because a Democrat had not occupied the governor’s office in 40 years. Jackson denied the request and later believed that animosity did not exist between himself and the newly elected governor. Jackson made it known that his wife Sandi, a lawyer, was interested in a job in the new Blagojevich administration. It became apparent through further interactions that Sandi Jackson was being considered for a position with the Illinois Lottery Department; however, she was not appointed to this position. Jackson later encountered Governor Blagojevich in Washington D.C., at an Illinois Congressional Delegation luncheon. Congressman Jackson described his conversation with Blagojevich as apologetic, clarifying that hard feelings did not exist over the situation with Sandi and the lottery department. Jackson then stated that if any opportunities arose in his administration, she remained interested. Jesse Jackson Jr., then imitated Blagojevich in “Elvis Presley” style snapping his fingers while exiting the room and commenting “You should have given me that $25,000”.
The testimony of Jackson presented the jury with the pay to play mindset of former governor Blagojevich. Although Jackson denied ever directly being offered to exchange funds for the Senate seat in question, the previous encounters described provide Jackson’s understanding of how business was conducted within the Blagojevich administration. Calling Jackson to the stand clearly backfired for the defense, by painting their client as having corrupt and questionable values. Although this is clearly not the first time Rod Blagojevich has been presented in this light as the trial nears a close, the testimony becomes even more imperative. Overall, the experience was extremely insightful. It was certainly an inside look at the highly publicized trial that cannot be seen from the newspapers.
Yesterday was interesting day to observe the Blagojevich retrial. Mayor Emanuel provided the defense with short and concise testimony denying a shakedown in relation to the U.S. Senate seat and a school grant for a north side school. A fun fact I learned yesterday: This is the first time a sitting Chicago mayor has testified in a federal criminal trial since Richard J. Daley testified in the Chicago Seven trial in 1970. I’m filing that away for my next game of Trivial Pursuit. Mayor Emanuel’s short testimony is not what’s been on my mind this morning, however. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.’s testimony is what really has me thinking. Jackson denied that then-Governor Blagojevich proposed an exchange of money for an appointment to the U.S. Senate. Jackson told the defense that he instead embarked on a public “self-advocacy” campaign for the Senate appointment. The phrase “self-advocacy” is an interesting one. What is this self-advocacy? Of course, politicians must advocate their ability to effectively represent their potential constituents. Jackson testified that he spoke with powerful people, embarked on a media messaging campaign, and compiled polling data on a possible appointment to the Senate seat. These are all ways that politicians regularly advocate on their own behalf. Blagojevich himself was a tireless self-advocate. At some point, though, the federal government alleges that a line was crossed. Self-advocacy becomes bribery when an ambassadorship or a cabinet post is sought in exchange for a Senate seat appointment. Self-advocacy becomes extortion when campaign donations are sought in exchange for official state acts. So, what I’ve been mulling over after watching the ultimate self-advocate on trial for corruption charges: how can we address the tangled relationship between self-advocacy, the financial costs of this advocacy, and our expectations of our leaders to engage in fair and legal self-advocacy? The Blagojevich retrial offers a perfect opportunity to ask and attempt to answer this sort of question.