Lessons Learned: USA v. Rod Blagojevich

This Wednesday, I attended a lecture at Northwestern University Law School by Mr. Reid J. Schar, the lead Assistant US Attorney for the Blagojevich Trials. For those of you who have not heard of the Blagojevich Trial, it was actually the series of two trials, of former Rod Blagojevich for attempting to sell President Obama’s senate seat and shake down Children’s Memorial Hospital for campaign contributions.

Rod Blagojevich

Rod Blagojevich was indicted on a total of 16 counts, which consisted of lying to federal agents, attempted extortion, extortion conspiracy, wire fraud, and racketeering conspiracy.  In the first trial, Blagojevich was convicted on just one count; lying to federal agents. There was then a second trial in which he was found guilty of an additional 17 counts.  In the end, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Now, this lecture that I attended was about lessons learned from prosecuting the trial. Here are the major lessons that Mr. Schar shared:

  • Be persistent
  • Think before you write and talk
  • Be wary if someone is not explicit
  • When you have a concern, seek advice from experienced counsel
  • Always do the right thing (Most of the time isn’t good enough.)

I will be going through some of these lessons today:

Be persistent:

John Wyma, a political consultant and lobbyist who was close with Blagojevich, informed law enforcement that the former governer was linking fundraising to state action in two cases: Children’s Memorial Hospital and the Illinois Road Builders Association. He also tells the government that “Friends of Blagojevich,” (part of their campaign) was having an important meeting on October 22, 2008.

On October 20, 2008, US Attorneys attempted to convince Wyma to wear a wire to the meeting, but he refused. They now only had one option, to try to get authority to have the FBI plant a bug in the offices where they were having the meeting.

Getting this kind of warrant requires a lot of time, much more than two days. They persisted, and stayed up all night writing a wiretap application. They got approval and early on October 22, and an FBI team planted listening devices in the building.  The recording devices worked, and Blagojevich made incriminating statements. This information is used to obtain wiretap warrants on Blagojevich’s home and office.

On October 28, the wiretaps went live, and while they were expecting to gather information regarding the shaking down of contributors for state action (which they do), Blagojevich talked most about selling a US Senate Seat.

Why can he do this? Apparently there is a rule that if a senator vacates a US Senate Seat in Illinois for the presidency, the governor is allowed to appoint a new one.  Blagojevich considers various public and private sector jobs, or campaign contributions.

Think before you write and talk: 

Blagojevich became his own worst enemy, what he said ultimately got him convicted. The same is true in the business world. One bad email or comment can derail a career (DLA Billing Emails).

This article would be about 50 pages long if I talked about every wiretap that was used in the trial, but I will highlight a few important ones.

I mean I, I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking… golden.

And I, I’m not giving it up for fucking nothing.

Blagojevich obviously wanted to sell the Senate Seat.

The whole world’s passing me by and I’m stuck in this fucking job as governor now. Everybody’s passing me by and I’m stuck…. I mean you guys are telling me I just gotta suck it up for two years and do nothing. Give this motherfucker, his senator. Fuck him. For nothing? Fuck him.

This quote is Blagojevich’s response to President Obama, who requested that Blagojevich give the senator seat to Valerie Jarrett. Obviously he’s not very happy that he isn’t getting anything in return.

Be wary if someone is not explicit: 

When someone skirts around a subject, and doesn’t explicitly say what they want, be leery.

Blagojevich tried to do this multiple times when talking about selling the senate seat.

Consultant: “Is this, is essentially the deal with Jesse Jr. will be that the Jacksons will support you for re-election?

Blago: No there’s more to it.

Consultant: What else?

Blago: There’s tangible concrete tangible stuff from supporters.

Consultant: Like what?

Blago:  Well like, you know. You know what I’m talking about

Blagojevich did not want to talk on the phone and explicitly say what he wanted: money for the seat.

The Children’s Memorial Hospital Shakedown:

Currently, we’ve only been talking about Blagojevich, but now let us shift gears over to the Children’s Memorial Hospital Shakedown.

For years, CMH (Childrens) was trying to raise Medicaid rates for research. CEO Patrick Magoon tried to call Blagojevich on multiple occasions, but he would not answer. Mr. Magoon was smart, and knew that Blagojevich was a Cubs fan, so he got former Cubs manager Dusty Baker to give him a call. After talking to Mr. Baker, Blagojevich agreed to raise rates.

That sounded great, except when he got a call later that week from Blagojevich’s chief fundraiser asking for a donation in order to get the rate increase.

When you  have a concern, seek advice from experienced counsel:

Magoon was concerned about the timing of this, and he asked an outside white collar counsel. He was told to stop communicating with Blagojevich. If he got bad advice, he could have caused problems for himself.

When confronted with ethical issues, always consult a general counsel

Always do the right thing (Most of the time isn’t good enough):

Blagojevich’s Chief of Staff John Harris tried very hard to avoid Blagojevich’s illegal efforts, but in the end he got worn down and participated in the Senate seat crime. He had no outside counsel to talk to and he did not feel he could say no. He eventually was arrested and convicted along with Blagojevich.

I found it interesting, because John Harris was still convicted, even though he didn’t want to help Blagojevich.

The Trial: 

The first trial (2010) was less interesting compared with the second. It ended with a deadlocked jury (11-1 to convict) and one guilty charge of lying to the FBI.

The second trial (2011):

The prosecutors focused on the strongest evidence. Blagojevich made a decision to testify. I was lucky enough to attend the Blagojevich trial the first day that he took the stand.

His Testimony lasted five days, in which he spent most of the time telling stories about growing up. He had a story for all the jurors. For instance, he talked about how he loved libraries, and would read books all the time, and how after the library he would go to an awesome Greek Restaurant to get dinner. Turns out, one juror was a Librarian and one was a Greek Restaurant Owner.

From watching Blagojevich’s testimony, I personally started to feel bad for Blagojevich. He made himself come off as just a dumb guy who made a stupid decision. I learned that Blagojevich had a story for every juror in mind.

Being an Assistant US Attorney

One of the things that I also learned from this lecture is that being a US Prosecutor is a very hard job to have. Mr. Schar explained that he worked 15 hours a day, 7 days a week for 6 months during the trial. This was the only case he worked on, along with three other lawyers. Any private law firm would have at least 6 lawyers not to mention paralegals and other support they would receive.

Mr. Schar is now a partner at Jenner & Block.

My Final Thoughts:

I learned a lot from this lecture about how it is important to think before you bluntly say something. As shown by these trials, many careers have been derailed because of one thing that they said. I also learned the importance of asking for advice if you are in a sticky situation, just as John Harris should have done. John Harris’ case also demonstrated the lesson: If you are pressured to do something wrong, never give in.

You must always do the right thing, no matter what the situation.

I also would like to thank Mr. Schar for giving this great speech and for emailing me the powerpoint he used in order to write this post.

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One thought on “Lessons Learned: USA v. Rod Blagojevich

  1. Thank you for writing this up. To me, the most important lesson from this lecture is the need to always being honest and ethical. I have been fascinated by white collar crime because I struggle to understand why otherwise intelligent people can do very stupid things. What is most interesting to me about the Blagojevich trial is that other people who surrounded him who ended up participating in Blagojevich’s illegal actions. In my years practicing law, I have seen many people with good intentions cross the line. It is quite easy to rationalize wrong actions. Unfortunately, young people, whether they go into law or other professions, don’t seem to understand the ease with which one can break the law. In many professions such as law, a smart professional can push the boundaries of their area of practice but in so doing, must be extremely careful not to cross the line. I hope you will carry this lesson with you.

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