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Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010 07:33 am

Blagojevich trial will make the campaign interesting

For Democrats, there’s trouble on the way

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PHOTO BY PHIL VELASQUEZ/MCT

Lawyers for Rod Blagojevich told reporters last week that there might be a delay in the former governor’s criminal trial when a federal grand jury, as expected, hands down a new indictment. But they also stressed that they were working hard to keep the trial on track for its June start date.

As I write this, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago is hoping to re-indict Blagojevich in order to make sure its criminal case isn’t damaged by an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the federal “Honest Services” statute. The brief statute has been used by federal prosecutors for years to prosecute politicians and corporate executives on a wide variety of charges, claiming they defrauded citizens, investors, etc. via “a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.”

The law has come under fire because it is so incredibly vague that prosecutors have used it to prosecute all sorts of behavior. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer wondered aloud whether a worker taking an unauthorized break “to read the Racing Form” could be indicted.

Thankfully, federal prosecutors have better things to do than indict employees for reading newspapers. Still, the law is so vague and broad that Chief Justice John Roberts more than hinted that the statute was impossible to understand, which would therefore make it unconstitutional. Former Gov. George Ryan, Enron’s former president Jeff Skilling, former Chicago media baron Conrad Black and many others, including Rod Blagojevich, were all indicted on honest services fraud counts.

At least some court-imposed restrictions on the law are expected, so prosecutors are scrambling to make sure their cases are solid, including in Chicago.

But this column isn’t about honest services fraud. It’s about Illinois politics. So, let’s get on with it.

Blagojevich’s criminal trial has been expected to last most of the summer and end just about the time that the fall campaigns are heating up around Labor Day.

To date, Blagojevich has used every opportunity that he could to claim he was railroaded by prosecutors and to point fingers of blame at his fellow Democrats who he believes are far more deserving of prosecution than him.

Blagojevich deeply and thoroughly despises Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, so many believe he’ll use his trial and the accompanying daily media spotlight to try to hurt them and, by extension, their candidates as much as he can. Blagojevich’s book is drenched with hostility towards the two men.

The former governor also detests Pat Quinn, whom he accuses of cutting a deal with Madigan and Cullerton on tax hikes in order to become governor (yes, it’s a silly theory, but this is Rod Blagojevich we’re talking about here). As I write this, we don’t know whether Quinn will survive the Democratic primary. But Blagojevich often sparred with Quinn’s opponent, Comptroller Dan Hynes, so I’m sure he’ll think of something to thwack Hynes with as well.

A brief delay while Blagojevich’s defense lawyers retool their case would probably hurt the Democrats even more than a June start because the trial could be pushed back into the fall campaign season itself. What the Democrats really need in order to avoid this embarrassment is a much longer delay, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards as of yet.

The only saving grace might be if Republican George Ryan makes it into the headlines with a post-decision appeal to have his conviction overturned. But even that probably wouldn’t be much help. Ryan left office a long time ago. And since the nation’s mood seems to be anti-incumbent (for good reason), and the Democrats dominate just about everything in Illinois, it’ll likely just add fuel to that particular fire.

In other words, if you’re a Democrat there’s trouble on the way for you whether you like it or not, or whether you deserve it or not. Then again, if you’re a Democrat, there’s a good chance you voted for Blagojevich twice, or four times, counting the primaries. In that case, it really is your fault. Particularly that last time, when if you’d been paying any sort of attention, you would’ve known you were taking a risk on a known ethical dud.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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