CHICAGO — He was fired by Donald Trump, sent his wife to the jungle of Costa Rica to eat a tarantula on a reality show and sat there smiling as the likes of David Letterman ridiculed him.
But to many Illinois residents, Rod Blagojevich is more than a punch line.
As Illinois braces for a rerun of the ex-governor’s sensational corruption trial that ended last summer with a conviction on a single charge, many here are tired of the drama they say has dragged down the state’s reputation. They feel anger, betrayal and, in some cases, sympathy.
Some residents think Blagojevich hasn’t paid enough for what U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald called a “political corruption crime spree” that would “make Lincoln roll over in his grave.” Others, though, see him as a victim being steamrolled by prosecutors who, they say, aren’t satisfied that he was found guilty of only one charge — lying to the FBI.
Together, these mixed emotions add up to a state that doesn’t think all the jokes are so funny.
“I know the good book says forgive and you will be forgiven, but I don’t see how the good people of Illinois can forgive what he’s done,” said Bob Butler, 83, who has been mayor of the southern Illinois town of Marion since 1963.
Scott McCoy certainly isn’t ready to forgive. Years after Blagojevich left office, the former of mayor of the north-central Illinois town of Pontiac acknowledges that one of the reasons he drove 100 miles to watch the last trial in Chicago and why he might do so again for the retrial is that he can’t get past the way Blagojevich tried to close a state prison there, an effort that would have killed 500 jobs and devastated the community of 12,000 residents.
“Politicians — and I was one of them —need to understand that people will not put up with this crap,” said McCoy, who views Blagojevich’s plan to close the prison as nothing more than a way to punish local lawmakers who’d supported a recall initiative aimed at the former governor.
Last year’s trial ended with a hung jury on 23 of 24 counts against Blagojevich including those involving allegations that he tried sell President Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat. For the retrial, which begins Wednesday with jury selection, prosecutors have dropped some of the charges and say they plan to present a more streamlined case. At the heart of the case will be phone calls secretly recorded by the FBI in which Blagojevich talks about the chance to turn his appointment of Obama’s replacement into a job for himself, maybe even an ambassadorship in some far-off exotic land, and rails — often in profane language — about Obama, the newspaper columnists he wants fired and ungrateful voters.
Blagojevich, who has maintained his innocence, did not testify at his first trial and it’s not known whether he will take the stand during round two.
Unlike McCoy and Butler, some Illinois residents don’t want to see Blagojevich retried. It’s prosecutors who have abused power, not the ousted governor, they say.
Cliff Kelley, a popular host on a black-oriented Chicago radio station, said his callers don’t like the way federal prosecutors have treated Blagojevich.
“They think the government really went after him,” Kelley said.
Ira Acree, a minister on Chicago’s West Side, said he and others believe that Blagojevich, as powerful as he was, is now being attacked by forces even more powerful.
“You cannot ever win against the United States of America,” said Acree, who was among a group of ministers who visited Blagojevich shortly after the then-governor’s arrest at his home in December 2008. “With their unlimited budget? How can a private citizen survive that?”
Besides, he said, prosecutors have already won. The one count for which Blagojevich was convicted carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
“He’s paid a great penalty already,” Acree said of Blagojevich. “He can’t run for elective office again, he’s lost his pension and he’s been internationally disgraced.”
But other Illinois residents say that’s not enough.
“To stop now would be kind of letting him off,” said Ursula Wagner, a 30-year-old social worker in Chicago.
Attorneys and jury consultants say the publicity surrounding Blagojevich and the attention his first trial received could easily find its way into the jury box.
“Because he was looking out for himself, people felt personally duped by him, yes. That’s very emotional and heartfelt (and) it doesn’t help him at all,” said Beth Foley, a Chicago-based jury consultant.
But there is also the possibility that potential jurors may view the fact that there is a second trial as negative for the federal prosecutors, said Joel Levin, a former federal prosecutor.
“They might wonder, ‘So, why are we spending money to retry someone who’s already been convicted?’” he said.
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